Zimbabwe Moves to Silence Remaining Independent Newspapers

Trevor Ncube, owner of the Zimbabwe Independent selling copies of his paper to motorists in Harare in 2001. (Photo: - / AFP-Getty Images)

At one time, Zimbabwe had a media industry that was vibrant and showed potential of becoming a growth area. In addition to the state-owned broadcasting and newspaper publishing groups, the country also had privately owned radio and television channels as well as privately owned newspapers.

All the privately owned radio and television channels have been closed down and it is now illegal to own or operate a radio or television broadcasting station in Zimbabwe.

Three of the privately owned newspapers — The Financial Gazette, The Daily Mirror, and The Daily Mirror on Sunday — have been taken over by the country's dreaded secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization. Four others — The Daily News, The Daily News on Sunday, The Tribune, and The Weekly Times -- have been shut down.

The two remaining privately owned newspapers — the Zimbabwe Independent and The Standard — are now also being threatened with closure. They are owned by Trevor Ncube, who also publishes South Africa's Mail & Guardian.

In December 2005, Ncube made history when he became the first critic of the Zimbabwe government to be placed under virtual country arrest after security agents seized his passport. The move came in the wake of an amendment to the country's constitution to allow the government to restrict the right to freedom of movement by denying a passport to anyone wishing to travel outside the country "where it is feared or believed or known that the Zimbabwean in question will, during his or her travel, harm the national interest or defense interest or economic interest of the state."

The list of critics of the Zimbabwe government who were to have their passports withdrawn should they try to enter or leave the country included journalists Geoff Nyarota, Nqobile Nyathi, Lloyd Mudiwa, Basildon Peta, and Caroline Gombakomba.

Then, as now, Ncube believed the real reason why he had also been targeted in this way was that security agents, who he said now rule the country, wanted to silence him as well as make him leave the country illegally so they could level criminal charges against him and take over his newspapers.

"They know I stand to lose a lot if I am unable to return to South Africa. They think I will leave the country illegally so they can have something to pin on me. Then they can specify me and my newspapers and that way take over my business," he said.

Ncube travels regularly between South Africa and Zimbabwe to run his newspapers.

"This is about a regime that wants to control the minds of people. They are basically saying that you can't speak out, because if you do, you lose your passport," he said at the time.

That December he got his passport back after a week because although the amended constitution now allows the Mugabe regime to seize passports from those it perceives to be acting against national interest, there is no corresponding piece of legislation that sets specific guidelines as to which offenses warrant the withdrawal of passports.

The new threat to the Zimbabwe Standard and The Independent comes after the country's registrar general, Tobaiwa Mudede, refused to renew Ncube's passport last month and went on to revoke his citizenship.

Under Zimbabwe's media laws, foreigners and non-resident Zimbabweans cannot own newspapers. They cannot be majority shareholders in media ventures.

Now, as in December 2005, Ncube is challenging this latest attempt in court.

According to a report in the state-owned Herald newspaper, in court documents submitted by Mudede, the registrar general argues that Ncube is not a Zimbabwean citizen because he was born of a Zambian father and did not revoke his Zambian citizenship.

"His failure to comply with the requirement to renounce Zambian citizenship by descent within the prescribed period (July 6 to Jan. 6, 2002) automatically meant loss of Zimbabwean citizenship," Mudede said.

For his part, Ncube maintains that his mother is Zimbabwean by birth and that his father, although born in Zambia, had applied for and received Zimbabwean citizenship by the time Ncube was born.

"I am not and have never been a citizen of a country other than Zimbabwe. I am not aware of any country that I have had connection with which provides for automatic citizenship for a person in my position," Ncube said.

According to The Herald, a court date has not yet been set for the hearing.

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