By Geoff Nyarota
THE Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only daily operating outside Robert Mugabe’s extensive media empire, was doomed to perish from the very day of its celebrated launch.
That for four years the paper sold briskly throughout Zimbabwe was testimony to the publishing company’s resilience in outmanoeuvring those plotting to destroy what quickly became Zimbabwe’s most popular newspaper.
In small towns and in the rural areas, the stronghold of the ruling Zanu PF party, marauding party-sponsored youth militias and liberation war veterans imposed an illegal but effective ban on the newspaper.
While party activists disrupted the distribution of the Daily News government officials concentrated on disrupting the paper’s news-gathering process. Journalists were denied access to news and subjected to harassment, including routine arrest. But not even death threats or bomb explosions at the paper’s head office and at its printing factory were enough to drive the Daily News off the streets. The day after its printing press was totally wrecked in 2001 the paper was back in circulation, in defiance of the odds and of the effort of those who planted the bombs.
Failure by the police to investigate the explosions fuelled growing suspicion that agents of government were behind this ruthless campaign. The factory blast occurred soon after Information Minister Jonathan Moyo made serious threats against the Daily News and ruling-party militants made a bonfire of copies of the newspaper in front of its offices in downtown Harare.
“The Daily News is a threat to national security which has to be silenced,” Moyo said on state television.
Two events were to have a direct bearing on the eventual collapse of the Daily News. Parliament enacted the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) and Sam Sipepa Nkomo was appointed chief executive of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publishers of the newspaper.
From the outset it became apparent that while it was couched in general terms that sought to destabilise the role and operations of Zimbabwe’s vibrant privately owned press, the chief target of Aippa was the Daily News. The paper had emerged to become the largest selling daily in just over one year and a thorn in the flesh of Zanu PF.
Under the draconian media laws, masterminded with singular determination by Moyo, no company would be allowed to run a newspaper, radio or television station, unless registered by a Media and Information Commission (MIC) hand-picked by the minister. No one would be allowed to practise as a journalist unless accredited by the commission chaired by staunch Zanu PF activist, Dr Tafataona Mahoso, former head of the journalism school at the Harare Polytechnic.
Daily News reporter Lloyd Mudiwa and I became the first journalists to be prosecuted under Aippa. In a series of events that were arguably orchestrated to provide government with its first opportunity to flex its new muscles, we were arrested and charged with the alleged publication of a falsehood. At the time of my departure from the Daily News we were still investigating a lead that the source of the offending story, wherein Zanu PF activists were alleged to have murdered an opposition party supporter, was an agent of the Central Intelligence Organisation.
To lend credence to the theory that the story was a sting operation, the source became hostile before disappearing altogether.
Nonetheless, we subjected ourselves, on the advice of lawyers, to the due legal process under this unjust law, while the lawyers challenged the relevant provision of Aippa in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the provision in question, which made it an offence for journalists to “abuse journalistic privilege by writing falsehoods” was in contravention of a section of the constitution of Zimbabwe. The case against Mudiwa and I was therefore dropped.
The stage had, however, already been set for the series of events which culminated in the shutting down of the Daily News last month.
We invited Johannesburg-based entrepreneur, Strive Masiyiwa, to inject much-needed capital funding in ANZ and thus reduce the level of foreign ownership. He effectively became the new majority shareholder. Masiyiwa made the surprise announcement that Nkomo was the new executive chairman of the beleaguered company. His tenure of office was fraught with both controversy and mystery, starting with his own appointment on April 1, 2002.
Nkomo was a little-known managing director of the Mining Industry Pension Fund until the just-launched Daily News investigated him in connection with an alleged fraud case.
The allegation forced him to resign before he was arrested and charged.
The state, however, withdrew the charges against Nkomo before plea. When the Daily News next published a story about Nkomo, it was to announce his appointment as the paper’s new chief executive. Of his abandoned court case, nothing further was heard, although his alleged associate, businessman Trevor Carelse-Juul, moved to South Africa ahead of a police probe. He told the Daily News on the eve of his departure that he would return within a week to clear his name.
That was in December 1999. He has never set foot back in Harare. As Carelse-Juul settled down to his new life outside the country, Nkomo came to grips with the mammoth task of managing a newspaper which, apart from being the Zimbabwean government’s worst enemy, had recently caused his own downfall.
Within seven months of Nkomo assuming office, the Daily News was forced off the streets for a week. Nkomo reneged on an undertaking to award a salary increase to staff in January 2003. Workers resorted to strike action in December, forcing the first ever suspension of publication of the newspaper. Nkomo departed for the Christmas holiday. I consulted Masiyiwa over the ongoing crisis. He said I should resolve the issue but any collapse of the Daily News would to him be “good riddance”. He was not making any money out of the paper, he said. Last month Masiyiwa was reported to have pledged to pay staff for up to two years even if the Daily News was not published.
Back on December 24 I made private arrangements to advance money to employees in order for them to have some semblance of a merry Christmas.
The arrangement was that once they accessed their own salaries, after the deadlock was resolved, the workers would reimburse me. In the meantime, they agreed to return to work and produce the paper soon after the holiday. However, on his return Nkomo presided over a brief kangaroo court, where without being given an opportunity to explain and defend my actions, I was accused of siding with the workers. A few hours later the government-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, a bitter enemy of the Daily News, broke the story that I had been dismissed from my position as editor.
How government’s least enterprising but most far-reaching news outlet became first with this particular scoop remains another mystery.
Early in December Business Tribune, a newspaper aligned to Zanu PF, reported that I was about to be dismissed from the Daily News. This was a full two weeks before I committed the offence for which I was allegedly dismissed.
Far from being mystified by the unfolding events, Daily News deputy editor-in-chief, Davison Maruziva, resigned on the day of my departure.
As the Daily News and the government’s media empire rallied to present Nkomo’s side of the story against me, I made my way to the United States where, gratefully, I had been awarded a journalism fellowship. Nine months later the Daily News finally succumbed to the machinations of its determined foes.
There are three other high-profile independent newspapers in Zimbabwe. The Financial Gazette, the Zimbabwe Independent, and the Standard, all in circulation long before the advent of the Daily News, and equally critical of Mugabe’s government. They all registered with MIC and are currently publishing, while challenging Aippa in the law courts. Their journalists are accredited.
ANZ submitted its application for registration with the MIC on September 16, soon after the Supreme Court dismissed its challenge of Aippa. The MIC rejected the application four days later, effectively banning the paper from publishing.
“I believe that all this could have been avoided had Nkomo agreed to join (then Financial Gazette proprietor Elias) Rusike and myself in our decision to register our newspapers and then launch a constitutional challenge against this Act,” Trevor Ncube, publisher of the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard, said a few weeks ago.
“We are going to register as required but will challenge the Act in court in an action we are jointly taking with the Independent and (the Media Institute of Southern Africa) Misa,” Rusike said in June 2002.
Misa is a non-governmental organisation which focuses on the need to promote free, independent and pluralistic media in southern Africa.
In the same Financial Gazette article published three days before the original June 16 deadline for registration, Nkomo said: “Our position is that we will go ahead and register but there are some objectionable sections in the Act that we feel need to be looked at.”
Any decision not to register ANZ on a matter of principle must, therefore, have been adopted retrospectively after expiry of the deadline. Ncube said that there was an effort to ensure that all independent newspapers acted in concert.
“I cannot say I understand the reasons for the decision not to register the Daily News but am convinced it was most unfortunate,” he said in written response to questions. “The Daily News has basically given the government a ‘legitimate reason’ to shut the paper down.
“The decision not to register when it was obvious that the government hated the Daily News with a passion and wanted to close down the newspaper was tactless and played right into the hands of (Jonathan) Moyo and Mahoso.”
I will tell it like it is, as was the fashion of the paper of which I was the founding editor. The failure by Nkomo to register the paper was less to do with the claimed defiance of an unjust law than it was to do with a genuine failure to present MIC with details of ANZ’s finances, as requested.
At the time of the deadline for registration the financial records of ANZ were in total shambles. The company’s financial manager had just been forced to resign for that reason and his successor was still trying to come to terms with the major task of reconciling the books.
It is for that reason that Nkomo was originally reluctant to register ANZ, while he was prepared to facilitate the futile attempt to register Daily News journalists by deadline and to submit application papers to register ANZ itself last month, now apparently with little qualm about principle.
What prompted the majority of independent publishers and journalists, who otherwise fiercely opposed Aippa, to opt for tactical registration was the real threat of being totally disbanded by a desperate regime if they failed to register in terms of a law lambasted by maverick Zanu PF politician Eddison Zvobgo as “the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution”.
ANZ management gambled on a matter of principle and relied solely on a suicidal battle against a regime notorious in recent years for its determination not to uphold the rule of law.
Geoff Nyarota, the founding editor-in-chief of the Daily News, is a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.