HomeOpinionHow Mugabe crushes Zim's free press

How Mugabe crushes Zim’s free press

By Wilf Mbanga

FROM the moment I boarded a plane to Britain in early 1998 to seek investors for an independent daily in Zimbabwe, I knew that we had embarked upon a collision course with President Robert Mug

abe’s Zanu PF government.

But we had to give it our best shot – there was so much at stake. The country had begun to slide into a morass of political and economic chaos and corruption.

The Daily News was launched in 1999 to be that voice. Bound by a code of ethics, the paper pledged to observe the highest standards of integrity and fairness and to produce a quality newspaper that would strive to “tell it like it is”.

It would go on to play a key role in the emergence of the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in 1999, the national referendum on constitutional reforms in February 2000 and the general elections later that year.

It informed the world of the vicious government crackdown on the opposition before, during and after the election and exposed the massive electoral fraud involved in 2000 and the presidential election in 2002.

The battle lines had been drawn in 1998 when potential investors were threatened by government ministers and hastily withdrew. As a result, the company faced serious financial problems early in its life, but was rescued by an enterprising Zimbabwean, Strive Masiyiwa, one of a new breed of incorruptible black businessmen.

He now owns 60% of the company, while 32% is held by the original British investors and the balance by a few Zimbabweans.

Soon after the paper hit the streets in 1999, it surpassed the circulation figures of the government-owned national daily, the Herald. People queued to buy copies of the Daily News, whose print run for many months was limited to 60 000 by the capacity of its press and availability of newsprint. This later rose to 120 000.

The Daily News kept the Zimbabwean public accurately informed of the activities of Zanu-PF’s corrupt and murderous leadership, breaking such stories as the president and the cabinet’s 1 150% salary hikes when 80% of Zimbabweans were living below the poverty line and the first lady’s multi-million dollar shopping sprees abroad.

The year 2000 saw the appointment of Jonathan Moyo who as the minister of state for information and publicity drafed the legislation for the banning of the Daily News – the misnamed Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa). However, the legislation was only enacted in 2002, and in the intervening months the government’s pursuit of the paper took many turns.

Meanwhile the government began arresting Daily News reporters and denying them access to government information. Arrests of the editors, management and local investors followed. Although I had left the newspaper a year earlier, I was arrested, together with the editor-in-chief of the paper, Geoff Nyarota.

From the start it was obvious that the police did not have a case against us, but we were detained overnight in a tiny, stinking cell. The magistrate had no difficulty in dismissing the case as being without substance. This did not deter the government from appealing to the high court, where once again the case was dismissed.

In January 2001 Moyo went on record as saying the Daily News had become a threat to national security and should be silenced. Within 48 hours, the printing presses of the newspaper lay in a twisted, tangled heap, destroyed by anti-tank explosives.

Later that year, the paper’s offices in central Harare were bombed. There have been no arrests.

Then came Aippa. From the outset it was obvious that Aippa was unconstitutional, in that it breached the provision of the Zimbabwe constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech. It was also patently obvious that the law had been passed to get rid of the Daily News and that even if we applied for registration, this would be denied.

The Independent Journalists Association and the Daily News immediately mounted a legal challenge on these grounds and decided not to apply for registration – thereby buying time to continue publishing.

In the first nine months of Aippa, 44 journalists from the private, independent media corps (out of around 100) were arrested. Of these, only two were actually prosecuted to completion and the government lost both cases.

With the skill and patience of a seasoned hunter, the government has been stalking the newspaper for a long time. It carefully manoeuvred into a position of strength before its final attack. Having gotten away with the land-grab, the impoverishment of most Zimbabweans through wanton destruction of the economy, the disenfranchisement and exile of the majority of the white population, blatantly fraudulent elections and the killing, maiming and raping of thousands of opposition supporters – it pounced for the kill.

It finally cornered its quarry three weeks ago when the Supreme Court ruled that the Daily News could not seek legal protection while breaking the law in question.

No sooner had judgement been passed than the police moved with uncharacteristic speed to seize equipment, block staff from entering the building and prevent the paper from appearing.

Finally, the coup de grace: The paper’s application for registration, made as soon as high court judgment was received, has been turned down by the MIC, as we knew all along that it would be. It was denied on the grounds that the paper had not followed proper procedures and had published illegally for eight months after enactment of Aippa without seeking registration.

Mugabe likes legal niceties. He did two law degrees while imprisoned by the Rhodesians during 1964-1974. Throughout his rule, he has taken great pains to ensure that new legislation is passed to facilitate his most illegal activities.

For example, he amended the Electoral Act to load the dice in his favour by disenfranchising thousands while allowing 11 000 soldiers in the DRC to vote.

And so the Daily News is not banned – it has merely been refused registration to operate as a newspaper because it has failed to comply with the requirements of the newspaper registration law of Zimbabwe.

Effectively the paper I founded is over. Killed by the regime. It is like losing a son. I loved that paper. It makes you weep. – The Guardian.

Mbanga is a veteran journalist and former ANZ director.

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