From the October 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 10)

International Editor of the Year Award

Iden Wetherell: Pulling No Punches

Julius Dawu , World Press Review correspondent, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

Iden Wetherell
Iden Wetherell, Editor of the weekly Zimbabwe Independent (Photo courtesy of the Zimbabwe Independent).
Describing the award as a great honor for him and recognition for the Zimbabwe Independent, which will provide a boost for its hard-pressed staff, Iden Wetherell said that in a failing state where independent institutions are under threat, the press has a special duty to afford democratic discourse and expose the false mantras of those clinging to power.

“Our duty is to expose and confront the powerful ruling elite that has abused power in order to retain it,” said Wetherell. “In a context where so much of the media act as a megaphone for the president [Robert Mugabe] and his followers and where formal opposition is manacled, we have a particular duty to speak out on issues of governance and economic management.”

In the citation for the award, WPR paid tribute to Wetherell’s courageous work on behalf of the independent press in Zimbabwe, given the highly repressive atmosphere for freedom of expression in a country that was once a beacon of hope for the region. “Your persistence in reporting and decrying the Mugabe regime’s despotism, despite official reprisals, and the leadership role you have taken in the formation of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum have rightly earned you the admiration of your journalistic colleagues in Zimbabwe and beyond,” WPR said.

The Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum (ZINEF), whose interim chairman is Geoff Nyarota, editor in chief of the Daily News, is modeled on its South African equivalent, the South African National Editors Forum. It brings together the editors of the main independent papers and enables them to speak with one voice in challenging press laws and responding to arrests and other forms of official pressure on the free press.

ZINEF will provide a vehicle for constitutional challenges to the latest raft of repressive laws. These include a stifling Public Order and Security Act (POSA), which is little different from the notorious Law and Order (Maintenance) Act used by the white-supremacist Ian Smith regime to suppress black nationalist movements in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) in the 1960s and ’70s. POSA’s draconian sibling, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, requires journalists to be licensed by a commission appointed by the minister of information and imposes a range of penalties including imprisonment for publishing “falsehoods.”

Wetherell said the new media and security laws are designed to have a chilling effect on the press—to silence dissent and prevent exposure of facts that could embarrass the regime by revealing its trail of corruption and misrule. He said the press must be resolute in challenging bad laws, speaking out on the root cause of the country’s problems, and refusing to be cowed by arrests and other forms of intimidation.

Colleagues describe Wetherell as quiet and unassuming but with a lot to say about the role of the press in promoting justice, equality, and nurturing a new democratic dispensation in Zimbabwe. Wetherell’s editorship of the Zimbabwe Independent has been an apt demonstration of his passion for a press that refuses to pander to political patronage, it is said.

Wetherell is one of 13 Zimbabwean journalists charged with “abusing journalistic privilege” under the new media law. He has also been charged three times under the Censorship Act, most recently for publishing a Reuters picture of semi-naked Amazonian natives playing soccer prior to the 2002 World Cup. The picture was published around the world without any other reported objection.

His arrest was but one of several incidents of harassment, intimidation, and threats that have become the norm for the independent press in Zimbabwe. But have such brushes with the law influenced Wetherell and his editorial team? “Only insofar as it has reinforced our determination to do our duty as a newspaper—keeping the public abreast of current issues and thereby ensuring they are able to make an informed choice as voters. We have repeatedly said we will not surrender to a repressive regime whose policies have spawned destitution and famine,” said Wetherell.

The Zimbabwe Independent was established in 1996, becoming the second privately owned weekly in Zimbabwe. It has remained one of several small—but influential—voices in the local media exercising the right to freedom of expression and affirming the democratic values that underpin good governance, human rights, and the rule of law.

In addition, the Zimbabwe Independent was the first newspaper in the country to go online and embrace the latest publishing technology. Today, with a staff of 10 reporters, the paper prints up to 25,000 copies a week, giving it a readership of 250,000, according to media researchers, in a society hungry for news where newspapers are passed through many hands.

Wetherell played a prominent role in student politics in the 1970s, heading the student council at the University College of Rhodesia (today the University of Zimbabwe). He took a bachelor of arts honors degree in history followed by a masters in philosophy and a Ph.D., and then lectured in the history department.

Wetherell spent the period 1976-79 in exile, mostly in Zambia and Botswana, returning home in early 1980. He returned to the University of Zimbabwe to teach but then branched out into secondary education. He lectured part time in the UZ Faculty of Education in the mid-1980s and was editor of the Journal of Social Change and Development from 1980-89. He was also an editor for Ravan Press publishers in Johannesburg and taught history at the University of Natal, South Africa. Wetherell joined The Financial Gazette as assistant to the editor in 1992. He became deputy editor of the Zimbabwe Independent when it was established in 1996 and became its editor four years later.

Looking into the future, what are the prospects for the independent press? “It is possible to say with some certainty that over the next year the pressures on us to conform will mount,” Wetherell said. “Whether that succeeds in silencing the free press is doubtful given the determination of the public to support independent newspapers and to repudiate the government’s increasingly threadbare blandishments.

“Mugabe cannot resist the democratic tide indefinitely,” he added, “and his disastrous economic policies will act as a catalyst in his eventual downfall. So I am optimistic about the long term, even though the struggle for change will be punishing for us all.”

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