Africa

Press Freedom

Zimbabwe’s Censors Win a Round

Zimbabweans scramble to buy the Daily News after it briefly appeared on newsstands again, Oct. 25, 2003
Zimbabweans scramble to buy the Daily News after it briefly appeared on newsstands for the first time in more than a month, Oct. 25, 2003. The paper has not published since that day (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).

A Zimbabwean judge has recused himself from hearing an appeal by the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s last independent daily newspaper, against a government shutdown. On Nov. 25, Harare’s government-owned Herald reported that “various arms of law enforcement” were investigating Judge Michael Majuru, president of the Administrative Court in Harare, for allegedly having told “some members of the public” that he would rule in favor of the the Daily News. That day, Judge Majuru told the court that he felt it was “prudent and fair” to take himself off the case.

It has been nearly three months since the Daily News was forced to close. Its management is facing criminal prosecution. But Sam Nkomo, the chief executive of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the Daily News’ parent company, is confident the paper will return despite this latest setback.

“I have no doubt that we will publish again,” Nkomo told World Press Review in an interview in Harare. “Our prayer is that the government will allow the Daily News back on the streets. If not, the political circumstances will change and the Daily News will be back on the streets anyway. We are guided only by our desire to publish. But government wanted to shut us down. They are scared of us, of our popularity with the readers,” Nkomo said.

The paper has not published regularly since Sept. 12, when the Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court ruled that it was operating illegally because it had not registered with the government’s Media and Information Commission (MIC), whose members are handpicked by Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, a close associate of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

A long and complex court battle followed. On Oct. 24, Judge Majuru ordered the MIC to register the Daily News and its parent company, ANZ. The following day, the Daily News published a single issue, apparently taking the court’s order that the paper should be licensed by Nov. 30 as permission to resume publishing.

The celebration was premature. The commission appealed Majuru’s ruling, and the police shut down the Daily News’ office, saying the court order did not constitute a license to publish. The court battle continues, and the paper hasn’t appeared again. ANZ directors and journalists face criminal charges for publishing and working for an unlicensed publication. Under the euphemistically titled Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, all newspapers, journalists, and media houses must be registered and licensed by the MIC. Failure to comply can result in fines and jail terms.

Four of the ANZ directors, currently out on bail, are due to appear in court on Feb. 6, 2004, for a preliminary hearing. But Nkomo holds hope for future, at least with a change in government.

Between Nov. 3-6, ANZ executives traveled to South Africa and the United Kingdom to draw international attention to the fate of the Daily News, in particular, and Zimbabwe’s independent press in general. The three-member delegation, led by Nkomo, met the media, human-rights groups, and parliamentarians to urge them to pressure Mugabe on press freedom in Zimbabwe.

“There is a reign of terror against all journalists. The independence we thought we were entitled to is not the independence we have. Publishers and journalists cannot look to the courts for redress, either. In the rare cases when a court does rule against the government, the decision is often ignored,” Bill Saidi, editor of the Daily News on Sunday, told a press conference in London on Nov. 5.

Back home, Matthew Takaona, president of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ), emphasized the Daily News’ prominence in Zimbabwe’s media landscape. “ZUJ believes the closure of the Daily News has resulted in the shrinkage of employment in the media by between 15 and 25 percent. It also estimates that between 49 and 60 percent of vendors have lost their jobs, and scores of journalists who might still be earning salaries are now very insecure. Gradually, a number of them are leaving the country to work in the diaspora,” Takaona said in remarks at the Nov. 16 National Journalist and Media Awards.

The Oct. 10 issue of the South African edition of Lagos’ independent This Day carried a front-page editorial urging South Africa to take a tougher stand with Mugabe: “The Daily News, the only independent daily newspaper, has been shut down, its staffers arrested, and harassed mercilessly. Zimbabwe’s people exist in an information blanket so effective that they do not know what is happening in their country except the propaganda and denials they hear from the state-owned media.”

To many Zimbabweans who espouse the ideals of an open society, the closure of the Daily News is a monumental tragedy. But for government supporters, it ended the rot in the Zimbabwean press and silenced the alleged mouthpiece of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Hailing Zimbabwe’s commitment to press freedom at the launch of the new pro-government ZIANA news agency, Moyo scoffed, “The Daily News is a victim of the rule of law about which it has been preaching since 1999.”

Mugabe and his administration have placed too much emphasis on the Daily News to lose face by backing down now. The removal of the judge who initially ruled in favor of ANZ and its holdings will send a chilling message to future judges handling the case. But it may further embolden the Zimbabwean opposition. As Iden Wetherell, editor of the pro-opposition weekly Zimbabwe Independent, wrote one week after the Daily News’ closure, “I have no doubt that [the ANZ staff]—like the people of this country—will emerge victorious in the end in this struggle with tyranny. In the long run of history, the censor has always lost.”

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