Geoff Nyarota, Zimbabwe's Independent Press, and Mugabe

No Appeasement

Geoff Nyarota
Geoff Nyarota, then editor of Zimbabwe's independent Daily News, leaves the Harare Magistrate's Court, July 22, 2002 (Photo: Paul Cadenhead/AFP).

I was sorry to receive the news this week of Geoff Nyarota's removal as editor of the Daily News. I have known Geoff since our student days 30 years ago and he was both a reliable colleague as chair of the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (ZINEF) and a good companion in other circumstances such as our visit to Germany in June.

I think you will all agree with me that under Geoff's stewardship the Daily News has proved a courageous fighter in the battle for a democratic society. While not by any means alone in that struggle, it is by its nature—as a daily—assigned a pivotal role.

It is hardly surprising then that the Daily News should have borne the brunt of government's vicious assault on the independent media that followed President Mugabe's electoral setbacks in 2000. While I made a number of visits myself to Harare Central, they do not compare to the sense of tenancy which Nyarota established over that particular police station.

Admittedly, his paper on occasion gave hostages to fortune. The Magunje case and the recent Stellenbosch story come to mind. But I do not for one minute accept Information Minister Jonathan Moyo's claim that there was no difference in seriousness between the two stories. His remarks were clearly opportunist in nature following the setting up of the Media Commission as the instrument of his tyranny.

He accused the Daily News of lying when in fact it used extracts from a South African news agency report claiming President Mugabe had arrived in a motorcade for the ANC's Stellenbosch conference [South Africa’s ruling African National Congress held its national conference at Stellenbosch University, Dec. 16-20, 2002, to plan its strategy for the next five years—WPR]. This relatively harmless story, which was quickly retracted, can in no way be compared to the Magunje episode [In which the Daily News mistakenly reported that supporters of Zimbabwe’s ruling party had beheaded Brandina Tadyanemhandu, a resident of Magunje, Zimbabwe—WPR].

But Moyo, who can be likened to a fox eyeing a careless chicken, quickly pounced. "Is there anyone out there who will raise a finger if action is taken against the Daily News?" he asked while in the same breath inviting the Media Commission to "act on such recklessness."

As the press is entirely within its rights in speculating about President Mugabe's whereabouts given the entirely unnecessary secrecy surrounding his movements, any such investigation by the Mahoso Commission would be a good opportunity for a newspaper to repudiate the investigative pretensions of this unqualified body.

If Mugabe insists on hiding from his people behind the glazed windows of his air-conditioned limousine, it is little wonder that the presence in a neighboring country of a motorcade similar to his trademark display of power and importance should give rise to unconfirmed media reports.

Meanwhile, I would hope some editor at News24 in South Africa is giving his correspondent in the Cape a roasting for feeding newspapers inaccurate news. On the other hand I certainly hope that the threats made against the Daily News over its most recent "transgression" have not unnerved the management there into taking steps which the public may mistake for appeasement. Any move by an independent paper to soften its tone or duck the big issues in the current crisis will be regarded by readers as unforgivable. As it is, the public have already been disadvantaged by the strike at the Daily News.

To echo remarks I made this week as deputy chair of the editors' forum, ZINEF, I hope the Daily News quickly resolves its internal problems so it can continue to provide Zimbabwean readers with the unadorned news and robust views for which there is a clear public demand. This is not the time for media managers and workers to show timidity or division that can be exploited by enemies of a free press.

Meanwhile, readers will join me in wishing Geoff and his principled deputy Davison Maruziva all the very best. I'm sure we haven't seen the last of them yet!

On Nov. 29 in an Editor's memo headed "It's not cricket", I argued that it was inappropriate for the International Cricket Council (ICC) to hold matches in Zimbabwe in the present circumstances. The presence of the teams would be seen by Mugabe's media machine as a recognition of their leader's legitimacy, I wrote.

Indeed, that is already happening. But I am pleased to note that despite an extraordinarily naïve report by the ICC on the security situation here, the tide of public opinion is now turning against the tour.

As just about everyone is pointing out, this is not about the security of the players but about principle. As in South Africa in the 1970s, the international sporting community must make a decision not to play with tyranny and racism.

The Sowetan declared on Tuesday [Dec. 31, 2002,] that Zimbabwe should be excluded from co-hosting the World Cricket Cup.

"Allowing part of this international tournament to be staged in that troubled country would amount to nothing less than an endorsement of Mugabe's refusal to defend basic human rights and guarantee such essential liberties as the freedom of speech and association," it said.

Quite so! Just as Hitler used the Berlin Olympics in 1936 to showcase his regime, so the Cricket World Cup will be milked for every propaganda advantage by Zimbabwe's increasingly fascist rulers.

That must not happen.

Iden Wetherell is the editor of The Zimbabwe Independent and the 2002 recipient of World Press Review's International Editor of the Year Award.