Africa

Zimbabwe

The Daily News: Gone but Not Forgotten

An armed guard stands outside the offices of the Daily News in Harare on Sept. 13, a day after the paper was forced to close for contravening a new media law. (Photo: AFP)

The Sept. 12 closure of the Daily News, Zimbabwe's first independent daily, has redefined the future of press freedom in a country widely known for its intolerance of free speech and its abuse of human rights.

Since it was established in 1999, the Daily News has been a strong critic of President Robert Mugabe's government. Its bold editorials and detailed exposés of government corruption brought it both respect and criticism.

During its run, the award-winning paper and its celebrated staff, under founding editor-in-chief Geoff Nyarota, challenged the official version of events put out in government publications, becoming one of the biggest thorns in the government's side.

But although government spokespersons repeatedly charged that the Daily News was British-sponsored and a mouthpiece for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), opposition sources were also critical of some Daily News editorials that were unfavorable to the MDC.

Hardly surprisingly, the paper was a target of attacks and closure attempts throughout its history. In 2000 and 2001, the paper's offices were attacked with bombs, the second attack destroying its printing presses. In December 2002, Nyarota was removed as the paper's editor. Many speculate that he was sacrificed in a bid for the paper to win acceptance by the government, although he had also angered the paper’s board by supporting journalists in an illegal strike for increased pay.

But the force that eventually led to the paper's closure was a new law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). AIPPA, the brainchild of Zimbabwe Minister of Information Jonathan Moyo, was crafted to control the local media and protect what Moyo called national interests against the influence of Western governments.

The act, passed in March 2002, makes it mandatory for mass media houses and journalists to be licensed through the Media and Information Commission (MIC), whose board is appointed by Moyo. The registration application forces media outlets to disclose details such as their business plans, as well as the curriculum vitae and political affiliations of company directors. The MIC can register and accredit media houses and journalists operating in Zimbabwe at its discretion. Under the Act, the MIC can take action against any journalist who writes a report deemed to be against national interests. Zimbabwean journalists found to have contravened sections of AIPPA could be fined or jailed for up to two years.

Zimbabwe’s independent media institutions, the Zimbabwean Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) and the Independent Journalist Association, have challenged AIIPA in court; the cases are ongoing.

Initially, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the publishers of the Daily News and its sister weekly, Daily News on Sunday, refused to apply for accreditation under the new law, arguing that AIIPA was designed to stifle the press. On Sept. 15, ANZ finally filed a registration, but by then it was too late. On Sept. 18, Zimbabwe's Supreme Court ruled that ANZ was operating illegally by not registering with the MIC as required by AIPPA, and on Sept. 19, the MIC denied the registration application. The ruling by Chief Justice Chidyausiku appeared to sound the death knell for the ANZ, though on Sept. 23, ANZ lodged an application at the Administrative Court challenging the MIC’s refusal to register it.

Commentators in the country's independent press were quick to condemn the Supreme Court's ruling. Editors of Harare’s independent The Standard (Sept. 14) called the ruling dangerous, saying that it "has larger implications to the media in Zimbabwe: in one stroke of the pen, it gives the Media and Information Commission the legality it so badly strove for, to move and frustrate Zimbabwe's vibrant but small private media."

Writing in Harare’s independent weekly The Financial Gazette, Cyril Zenda agreed that the closure of the Daily News and its sister Sunday paper would have a catastrophic effect on the country's robust media industry.

"There are heightened fears that government, subjected to unprecedented scrutiny, could be girding its loins for renewed assault on access to information and right to free expression," wrote Zenda (Sept. 18). In a Sept. 18 press statement, MISA-Zimbabwe said: "The Daily News occupies a distinctive place in the media landscape of Zimbabwe, having firmly established itself as the first independent daily paper during a crucial period."

Not surprisingly, the Harare-based, government-owned The Herald supported the ruling, though it did go so far as to say that the paper's closure "may not augur well for the advancement of democratic principles." (Sept. 16) However, the paper went on to argue, "Such principles should never ever be abused to advance illegality and to blackmail the sovereignty of a country and its laws. . . .There are clear channels to seek the repeal of any law, rule or regulation that can be pursued in a normal democracy without resorting to the law of the jungle, which the Daily News did and lost."

Another pro-government daily, the Bulawayo-based The Chronicle, agreed that the Daily News had only itself to blame. "The ANZ was using its newspaper to accuse the government of not respecting the rule of law, while itself was operating illegally, a simple case of people [in a] glass house throwing stones," it argued (Sept. 17).

ANZ has said it will appeal the ruling, but legal analysts believe this could be a protracted battle that will drag on for months. The fate of the 340 full-time staff and 900 vendors at ANZ, which also owns the Daily News on Sunday, seems to have been decided, though some of the paper's 60 or so journalists remain hopeful.

"While it may seem that this is the end, I hope that justice will one day be done and the ANZ will rise from these ashes," one journalist, who asked not to be identified, told World Press Review. "There is still a future in the press and I will remain part of the campaign for a free press in Zimbabwe. We have paid for our outspokenness. Who would have thought challenging AIPPA would result in this?"

On Sept. 16, the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and World Editors Forum (WEF) issued a statement in which they asked President Mugabe to ensure that the paper be allowed to publish without state interference. The statement reminded Mugabe that the "closure of the Daily News is a clear breach of the right to freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by numerous international agreements including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

The letter, signed by the presidents of WAN and WEF, noted that it was the first time since the 1960s that a newspaper in Zimbabwe has been shut down by the authorities. Writing in the pro-opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent, Chido Makunike felt that the court verdict affirmed both the government’s power and the potential threat to that power represented by the independent press.

“In this case it was so vitally, nationally important to comply with ‘law and order’ that a paramilitary operation to seal off the paper's building was thought to be called for, showing just how jittery the paper had made the authorities,” wrote Makunike. “The lessons from all this for those fighting against the repressive regime of Mugabe? Among them are to cover your tracks and not to underestimate the extent to which the regime will use any tactics to defend itself.” (Sept. 19.)

Ironically, the closure of the Daily News comes at a time when Zimbabwe is battling to win back international support. The once prosperous nation is on its last legs: Inflation has surpassed 460 percent and unemployment is at 70 percent. Moreover, more than 5 million Zimbabweans are facing starvation as the government dithers on solutions to solve the food crisis it engineered through its controversial land reforms. The most recent attack on press freedom is yet another sign that the government is growing increasingly desperate.

This week, the police questioned and charged five of ANZ’s directors with operating an illegal media house. In addition, the Daily News’ editorial staff and the paper’s chairman Strive Masiyiwa (who lives in South Africa) are to be charged for operating an unregistered organization, a move seen as the straw that might break the ANZ’s back.

On Sept. 24, the South African press reported that the South African National Editor’s Forum (SANEF) had asked for a meeting with South African Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to discuss what it said was media repression in Zimbabwe. "We are concerned at these developments and what appears to be a lack of firm response by your office to the violation of freedom of expression in Zimbabwe," said SANEF's letter.

Meanwhile, the Zimbabwean government’s attitude to the paper’s closure was perhaps best summed up by the Financial Gazette’s satirical column, Cabinet Files, in which a fictional President Mugabe showered praise on his minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, for engineering the paper’s closure.

“After events of this week, I take it for granted that all of you comrades now fully understand why I took a personal decision to bring Comrade Jonah into our great revolutionary party,” read the column (Sept. 17). “Until last week, who ever thought we could find a permanent solution to the scandal-mongering Strive Masiyiwa-owned Daily News? We all thought it was no longer possible to get a good night’s sleep in this country again, but—Sweet Judas!—courtesy of Comrade Jonah’s unparalleled wisdom and sagacity, the problem has unexpectedly disappeared like dew in the morning sun! The pesky Daily News is now history!”

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