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From the December 2003 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 50, No. 12)

Press Freedom in Zimbabwe

An Own Goal

Iden Wetherell, Zimbabwe Independent (pro-opposition weekly), Harare, Zimbabwe, Sept. 19, 2003

Samuel Sipepa Nkomo
Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, chief executive officer of The Daily News' parent company, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, speaks out against the closure of The Daily News, Sept. 20, 2003 (Photo: AFP/Getty Images).
It must be clear to everyone now that the Zimbabwean government has lost the battle for hearts and minds. The latest attack on the Daily News is proof of that. This is a regime so insecure that it feels the urgent need to silence alternative voices, to prevent the public from getting the news it is entitled to.

The closure of the Daily News last weekend and the subsequent seizure of its equipment by police follows electoral setbacks suffered by the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) two weeks earlier. Those local government elections showed that despite mounting repression the Zimbabwean populace will not be cowed. ZANU-PF lost in nearly all major centers.

Some background here may be instructive. In mid-2000, in a bid to counter the swing against ZANU-PF that the defeat of its constitutional proposals represented, Information Minister Chen Chimutengwende was replaced by professor Jonathan Moyo, who had been the chief spokesman of the failed constitutional commission. The chairman of that commission is now chief justice. Moyo’s job was to reverse the growing sentiment in the country that ZANU-PF was an exhausted volcano.  It may have succeeded 20 years earlier, as the party of liberation, in capturing the popular imagination, but it was clear to all, including Moyo, if his newspaper articles were anything to go by, that it had betrayed its mandate and failed the nation. A post-liberation aristocracy had translated political power into national ownership.

Corruption had become endemic, the economy was ineptly managed, and the ruling party itself was unable to offer anything but fossilized mantras. The 2000 referendum defeat was a wake-up call to the country’s sclerotic elite. The near defeat of the ruling party in the subsequent general election simply intensified
their alarm.

The reaction was twofold. President Robert Mugabe appointed what his friends in the media liked to call “technocrats,” individuals with management experience who would project a dynamic government profile. At the same time, the regime was planning a brutal assault on the commercial farming community as a punishment for having supported the new opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in its “No” campaign and the general election. This was not dissimilar to the campaign the government had conducted against “dissidents” in Matabeleland in the 1980s. Indeed, some of the same people
were involved.

Against a background of state-sponsored violence and lawlessness the “technocrats” made little progress. First Nkosana Moyo and then Simba Makoni found it impossible to produce results so long as President Mugabe regarded economic reform as part of the global plot against him.

Moyo in turn echoed Mugabe’s bitter denunciations of ZANU-PF’s critics. And by crafting the misnamed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), he fulfilled his sponsor’s long-standing desire to crack down on the independent media while imposing conformity on the so-called public media.

But despite a number of arrests, the independent press refused to be muzzled. It continued to expose the regime’s trail of criminal misrule, laying bare the hypocrisy of a president and party that had pauperized the country while claiming to be empowering its people.

Despite what could be seen as a more compliant judiciary, the state failed at every turn to silence the free media. Until last weekend, that is. The Supreme Court ruling that the ANZ’s [Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe] refusal to register with the Media and Information Commission, which represents nobody but the minister himself, had placed it on the wrong side of the law led to the events of this week where the police seized the company’s equipment.

This vindictive move is a short-term triumph for the reactionary gang around Mugabe. But like all their other repressive measures, it will simply complicate life for them. For they cannot close down what people think.

Did ministers really believe the public would be prepared to go back to relying on the dissembling Herald and Sunday Mail for their news? Once people have experienced a free press, they will never want to be hoodwinked again by papers attempting to cover the government’s dirty footprints.

The Daily News, together with other independent papers such as ours, has done much to expand the frontiers of freedom in Zimbabwe over recent years. If the government thinks it can take us back to an era of managed news by self-interested politicians, then it is even more delusional than we thought.

Moyo has conspicuously failed in his bid to crush dissent or to create public approval for the government’s self-serving notions of sovereignty and independence. The assault on the Daily News will embarrass ZANU-PF’s friends in the region and oblige them to step up pressure for AIPPA’s repeal. It is in every sense an own goal. As Nigeria’s decision to bar Mugabe from the Commonwealth summit in December shows, the regime has never been so discredited nor so isolated.

Meanwhile, there will be more challenges to AIPPA quite apart from the ANZ case. The Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe (IJAZ) and the Foreign Correspondents Association are currently awaiting rulings   in cases they have brought against the poorly drafted Act. A section of it has already been struck down. The Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard are awaiting the outcome of the current challenges before launching their own applications.

All of us here at the Zimbabwe Independent express our solidarity with ANZ staff in this time of trial. Nqobile Nyathi has proved an immensely brave editor. She and her staff at the Daily News and those at the Daily News on Sunday have our full support. I have no doubt they—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.

The author was WPR’s International Editor of the Year in 2002. For more information, see www.worldpress.org/award2002.htm

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