Independent Newspaper Battles Closure
Since its founding in 1998, Harare's independent The Daily News, its founder Wilf Mbanga, and its editor in chief Geoffrey Nyarota have had to contend with open hostility and intimidation from the government of Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe. But there are indications that, after years of employing strong-arm tactics, Mugabe's government is now resorting to subtler means to silence the paper.
A front-page story from the Nov. 6, 2001 edition of Harare's government-owned The Herald announced that the Zimbabwe Investment Center (ZIC) had cancelled the investment license of The Daily News's parent company, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ). If the move succeeds, it will effectively close The Daily News, one of the last remaining independent papers in Zimbabwe.
According to The Herald, the ZIC is charging ANZ with breaking Zimbabwean investment laws by inviting new shareholders into the company.
Mbanga and Nyarota, who were arrested on Nov. 12, 2001, but posted Z$10,000 (US$170) bail, have denied the charges, stressing that their accusers have yet to present any hard evidence against them.
ANZ Chief Executive Officer Muchadeyi Masunda called the charge "unfathomable." "The police," he said, "Are simply trying to build up a fraud case on the basis of false information supplied by the ZIC and reports published in The Herald."
Masunda says the government's charges stem from a clerical mistake made in 1997 by management consultants PriceWaterHouseCoopers when they were registering the company, and that The Herald's reports were part of a well-orchestrated campaign to discredit and destabilize the company. PriceWaterHouseCoopers has admitted the error. Masunda stressed that the company would "protect any of its employees or shareholders who find themselves subjected to harassment, arrest, or intimidation in their quest for a just and democratic society."
The Daily News's history of outspoken criticism of Mugabe's government has landed it in frequent trouble with the government.
Nyarota, the paper's editor, established his credentials as an investigative journalist with a 1989 exposé on corruption within Mugabe's party that resulted in the resignation of six cabinet ministers and the suicide of another. Mugabe has never forgiven Nayrota; he has jailed him three times this year alone. None of the charges has yet resulted in a conviction.
On April 22, 2000, a bomb exploded at the The Daily News's offices. Most independent journalists suspected either the government or its supporters for the attack. But Harare airport police arrested Associated Press photographer Obed Zilwa, who had arrived at the scene of the bombing to take pictures. Zilwa was released on April 29 after spending some 48 hours in jail. On May 2, a representative from the Attorney General's Office told him that the charges had been dropped. To date, no one has been convicted for the bombing.
And on June 6, 2000, Chenjerai Hunzvi, who was then the leader of the National Liberation War Veterans Association, a group agitating for the expropriation of white-owned commercial farms, warned The Daily News to stop portraying his group in a negative light. "I do not want to start a war with the newspaper," Hunzvi told reporters, "But this is my last warning." On June 9 war veterans in the town of Kwekwe, seized copies of The Daily News and other independent newspapers from newsstands and burned them.
And in July, 2000, Hunzvi, who was by then a member of Parliament, threatened Daily News reporter Chengetai Zvauya with physical harm if he did not stop covering the war veterans in a negative light, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Soon after, war veterans ambushed and severely beat Zvauya.
While intimidation has not yet succeeded in shutting The Daily News down, media-watchers in Zimbabwe fear that the government's latest tactic may have more success. Sizani Weza, a research officer with the Zimbabwe office of the Media Monitoring Authority Project, worries that if The Daily News stops publishing, it will be a severe blow to Zimbabwe's democracy. "The Zimbabwean state media has turned into the propaganda arm of the ruling party, with little information on the viewpoints of other political parties, or alternative opinions. Journalists and broadcasters who display some degree of independence are either sacked or suspended." In such an environment, he says, independent publications like The Daily News play a crucial role in informing the voting public and encouraging the growth of true democracy.