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Zimbabwe: Archbishop Faces Adultery Case

Julius Dawu, Harare, Zimbabwe, August 6, 2007

Zimbabwe's Archbishop Pius Ncube addresses a press conference in Harare in March on the deterioration of the economy and the brutal attack on opposition politicians and supporters arrested by state security agents crushing a planned antigovernment rally. (Photo: Desmond Kwande / AFP-Getty Images)

The publicized sex scandal involving the Zimbabwe's outspoken Archbishop Pius Ncube, who is facing a multibillion-dollar suit for alleged adultery, has not diverted the attention of Zimbabweans from the economic and political woes at home as had been widely expected. Instead, the government media's overkill on the story—largely seen as a government hatchet job—has stoked fresh debate on the double standards of journalism ethics in the country.

Ncube was recently sued by Onesimus Sibanda for an alleged affair with his wife, Rosemary, a secretary at a church under Ncube's diocese. The aggrieved husband hired a private investigator, Ernest Tekere, who has since been unmasked as a handyman for the national spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.). Tekere, who claims to have served as a policeman, served as head the C.I.O. in Bulawayo during the Fifth Brigade operations in the early 1980's.

The whopping 20 billion Zimbabwean dollars ($79 million) demanded by Sibanda is arguably one of the largest suits in Zimbabwe's legal history. It would seem the vocal cleric is paying for his "sins" against the Mugabe regime. Ncube has made headlines for praying for President Robert G. Mugabe's death. More recently, he said Britain would be justified in raiding Zimbabwe and removing Mugabe."

The threadbare suit has been interpreted by analysts and journalists as a planned diversion from the potpourri of economic and political problems on the home front. A price slashing campaign launched by the government in a bid to stop what it called profiteering by industry, has backfired as Zimbabweans are staring at empty shelves. In what can be equated to a national closing down sale, Zimbabweans cleaned shops of goods at knock down prices. Economic analysts warned that the move has precipitated a major shortage of basic commodities as industrialists have been forced to sell their goods at prices way below the supply price. A new law to take effect from August will ban the free importation of a number of commodities classified as controlled goods and worsen the food situation.

Ncube, who has bitterly criticized Mugabe for misrule and human rights violations, was recently slapped with the huge suit by Sibanda, in a case blown up by the government press to embarrass the 64-year-old cleric. Ncube is challenging the suit in what could be a bruising court battle.

The state media went to town in its coverage, splashing pictures of Ncube naked in bed with Rosemary Sibanda. The lurid pictures were run in successive issues of the government-controlled daily papers, the Herald and the Chronicle, and aired on national television, sparking debate on the selective application of media laws. Several months ago, a photographer with the Standard, a privately owned newspaper, was picked up by the police for publishing a picture of Law Society of Zimbabwe president Beatrice Mtetwa showing bruises from a police beating she received following an aborted march by lawyers.

As the case is set for a show down in the courts, it has emerged that the story was a hatchet job by government operatives to discredit Ncube, who has remained the main religious voice against government excesses.

Recently, the government toned down its propaganda campaign by instructing its media to stop using Ncube's pictures.

"We are not condoning what ever improper acts by archbishop Pius Ncube but in the interest of public good, moral and Christian fabric, the government has seen it necessary to stop showing Archbishop Ncube's pictures in the electronic and print media as the matter is now in the court of law," Information and Publicity Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said in a statement.

Surprisingly, there has been an outpouring of support for the cleric within Zimbabwe. On July 25, hundreds of people crowded Bulawayo's St. Mary's Cathedral—where Ncube is the celebrant—to join in prayers for him. The church prayer service followed the launch of the Pius Ncube Solidarity Coalition comprising churches, nongovernmental organizations, and political parties.

Chairperson of the coalition Effie Ncube, who is not related to the archbishop, said the spiritual and moral support for the cleric was to ensure he got a fair hearing in line with international justice.

"Archbishop Ncube has spoken fearlessly on behalf of us all, and whatever the truth or falsity of these allegations, we will not allow this great activist to be silenced," Effie Ncube said.

The coalition is one of a number of organizations that have condemned the coverage of the adultery suit as against the ethics of journalism and bordering on pornography.

Columnist Mavis Makuni of the Financial Gazette said the state media was trying crudely and unethically to turn Zimbabwe into a depraved nation of "peeping Toms" despite government ranting about the negative influence of the cultures of the West.

"The overkill surrounding the whole saga raises questions about who was behind it. The government should not stoop to the level of acting as an 'agony aunt' in the personal affairs of individuals when there are numerous, serious national problems to be attended to," wrote Makuni. "If I were an agony aunt, I would tell Sibanda that a man who feels compelled to share this kind of personal information about his wife with the whole nation is making a big statement about himself."

A private investigator hired by Sibanda supposedly took the pictures over a two-year period through cameras installed secretly in the archbishop's bedroom. The authenticity of the footage is being questioned.

"At the time the pornographic 'peep show' was released into the public domain, most Zimbabweans were devoting their energies to hunting for food and other basic commodities in the aftermath of the confusion and anarchy sparked by Operation Dzikisa Mitengo/Slash Prices," continued Makuni. "It is cruel and insensitive for the authorities to try to divert attention from these bread and butter issues by regaling a harassed population with the obscene details of an individual's marital problems."

The acquisition of the pictures by the hired investigator is a precursor of what is to come when the recently passed Interception of Communications Bill comes into force. That law gives government carte blanche to snoop on e-mails, postal mail, Internet, and telephone conversations in the name of national security.

Vincent Kahiya, editor of the privately owned Zimbabwe Independent, said the Ncube incident has greater national implications on the right to privacy of individuals and the possibility of the government and the Media and Information Commission allowing state media to carry out similar exercises on perceived political opponents with impunity.

"Lest we forget, parliament recently passed the Interception of Communications Bill to spy on individuals' phones and other electronic messages. After the Pius incident, what can stop the media from publishing transcripts of a cell phone conversation between a C.E.O. and his mistress or, worse still, the goings-on in hotel rooms occupied by opponents of the state? Don't say you have not been warned. Big Brother is becoming more devious," Kahiya observed.

Itayi Garande, in an editorial that TalkZimbabwe.com aired on Nehanda Radio, the country's first 24-hour Internet radio news channel, called the Pius Ncube story despicable journalism, further explaining that the Herald and Mugabe was keen for revenge on a cleric who opposed mass murder and starvation.

The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa decried the coverage of the story by the state media, reinforcing concerns that those organizations were being used as political weapons against perceived enemies of the Mugabe regime.

"Documentary evidence such as pictures can be a devastating weapon in the hands of an investigative journalist. The modern editor, however, lives in mortal fear of being presented with and unwittingly publishing doctored pictures. The Ncube story is no piece of investigation journalism," wrote Geoffrey Nyarota, an award winning U.S.-based journalist and managing editor of the online Zimbabwe Times. Nyarota once served as the editor of the now banned Daily News.

Another writer and activist, Tawanda Mutasah, felt that the coverage of the story was a callous attempt to distract the attention of a nation on its knees through cheap, scout-camp theatrics and that "half-round chicken kicks" do not put a slice of bread in the mouths of hungry Zimbabweans.

"Contrary to the intentions of Mugabe and his cohorts, the matter does not for once confuse Zimbabweans and the world about the veracity and importance of Ncube's public moral voice on the morass that Zimbabwe has become, and on Mugabe's responsibility for the state we are in," Mutasah wrote.

Prominent lawyer and Movement for Democratic Change shadow minister for justice David Coltart told SW Radio Africa that the amount of publicity given to the issue was highly unusual and lent credence to those who say it was orchestrated by the state. Coltart added that Mugabe's remarks a few weeks earlier before the story broke, about some priests who vowed to be celibate but are not was proof that Mugabe had full knowledge of the story before the matter came to light.

The South Africa-based Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference, in a July 20 statement, expressed hope that "Zimbabweans and the international community will not be sidetracked" in their efforts to find "a lasting solution to the serious problems bedeviling the country in the light of the allegation against Ncube."

But the Ncube story is not the first diversionary tactic. In June, six men, including a former army officer, were charged with treason and accused of plotting a coup. While they denied the coup plot, political analysts believe it could have been a ploy to sound warning shots to future aspirants to the Mugabe throne and deflect attention away from the political and economic breakdown.

Although Ncube's has lost some of its heat, the crisis facing Zimbabweans has not.

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