Reporters Without Borders today called on Tafataona Mahoso to step down as head of the Media and Information Commission (MIC), which supervises the news media in Zimbabwe, after a journalist who resigned from its board, Jonathan Maphenduka, alleged that Mahoso takes orders from his political bosses.
In a written statement to the high court, Maphenduka claimed that the board originally agreed to let the banned independent newspaper, the Daily News, register with the MIC and thereby allow it to resume publishing, but finally bowed to pressure from the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and reversed this decision.
“The MIC’s loyalty to the regime was already obvious but now there is proof that it is under the government’s direct political control,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Its members, who perhaps still laboured under the illusion of its independence, should publicly acknowledge this state of affairs and dissociate themselves. And now he has been unmasked, Mahoso must go.”
The representative of Zimbabwe’s journalists on the MIC board until he resigned on 18 August, Maphenduka made his allegations in an affidavit that was given to the Gill, Godlonton and Gerrans law firm on 22 November and was then submitted to Rita Makarau, the Harare high court judge tasked with ruling on the appeal that was filed in July by Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the publisher of the Daily News and Daily News on Sunday, after its request to be registered with the MIC was rejected.
Maphenduka, who used to work for the Chronicle, a pro-government daily, said the ANZ’s request to be registered was initially accepted by the MIC board at a meeting on 16 June. But Mahoso then allegedly decided to postpone announcing this decision in order “to consult higher authorities.” Mahoso reportedly said there was a need to “clear up the confusion” in the ANZ’s organisational structure before taking a final decision. Despite his requests, Maphenduka was never able to get a copy of the minutes of the 16 June meeting.
At a meeting two days later, the MIC board members were asked to approve the minutes of the 16 June meeting although Maphenduka, at least, had not received them. Mahoso and MIC legal adviser Daphne Tomana then asked them to reverse the 16 June decision and refuse to register the ANZ. “I am convinced, however, that the approach and the eventual decision resulting from it were largely political,” Maphenduka said in his affidavit.
Maphenduka resigned from the MIC a month later in protest against the “ill-advised and counter-productive” manner in which it reached its decisions. Mahoso has responded with a statement denying that he ever receive Maphenduka’s resignation and accusing him of “bringing scandal” to the MIC because he “has an interest” in the ANZ.
The allegations have stoked a controversy in Zimbabwe about the growing evidence that the MIC, which was supposed to be independent, is in fact directly dependent on the government. It has emerged, for example, that the salaries of the MIC board members are paid by the Department of State Enterprises and Indigenisation.
A milestone in the drawn-out legal wrangle between the Daily News and the government was reached on 14 March when the supreme court quashed the MIC’s September 2003 ban on the newspaper, forcing the MIC to reconsider the ANZ’s request for a licence within 60 days. Although the deadline expired on 15 May, the MIC waited until 16 and 17 June to consider the ANZ’s request, along with a request from The Tribune, a weekly that was closed in June 2004.
Mahoso refused to make any statement after these two days of deliberations, saying the newspapers would be told when a decision had been made, without explaining what he meant. The MIC finally announced its refusal to give the ANZ a licence on 18 July, as a result of which the ANC immediately challenged the decision before the Harare high court.
The legal battle between the ANZ and the MIC has gone from court to court ever since the Daily News and its Sunday edition were banned in September 2003. In February 2004, the battle reached the supreme court, which took a year to issue a ruling. Because of enormous financial difficulties and its desire not to expose its journalists to the possibility of arrest, the Daily News decided to stop publishing pending a resolution of the dispute.