Editor’s Memo

UMfecane

Joram Nyathi

“PRESIDENT

Mugabe has said our main enemy is the financial sector but the other enemy is the media who use the pen to lie about this country.


Such reporters are terrorists and the position on how to deal with terrorists is to subject them to the laws of Zimbabwe. If there are any reporters who think they will effect a regime change here they will find themselves in jail, we have enough prison room for them.”


The quotation above is attributed to our redoubtable Information minister Jonathan Moyo. The comments were allegedly made in Bulawayo on Friday last week, just two days before World Press Freedom Day.


As if to lend credence to Moyo’s threats, on May 3 the Committee for the Protection of Journalists issued a rating of countries that are most dangerous for journalists to work in. Zimbabwe settled for the bronze medal after a bruising contest with Iraq (gold) and Cuba (silver). I don’t know if it was because of British machinations that we were not able to clinch the gold medal.


But more seriously, I found the threat from our mercurial Information minister not only sinister, it was terrifying.


It is not the “prison room” that frightens me. It is the fact of a reporter being described as a “terrorist” by a minister whose main duty should be to see that journalists are protected and assisted in carrying out their duties. It is the prospect of getting unemployment or inflation figures about Zimbabwe wrong, for instance, and landing in prison. It is the chilling reality that it does not need a court to decide whether or not I have committed a crime and therefore must spend a night in prison. It is the minister’s law!


I am also terrified by the liberties the minister takes with language when he uses inflammatory statements to randomly categorise people as this or that for political purposes. Moyo says a reporter who writes a lie about the country is not only an enemy, he is a terrorist as well.


Were it not for the fear of offending the minister I would say he is being dangerously reckless with words. The moment one mentions terrorists I am reminded of the September 11 annihilation of the Twin Towers in New York. I am reminded of the Bali bombings.


At home mention of terrorists conjures up the horrors of allegations by Zanu PF that the MDC plotted to bomb bridges across the country and all tall buildings in Harare and Bulawayo ahead of the presidential election in 2002.


To then juxtapose these fiery images with a journalist scribbling away with a pen is more than hyperbole. It excites a keen sense of bathos. You fall from the sublime to the ridiculous.


Except there is nothing sublime about acts of terrorism but something foul about a Minister of Information describing journalists as terrorists for merely getting facts wrong about their country. Especially if the minister is the sole arbiter of what is correct and what is not.


Since the pernicious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act was promulgated two years ago nearly 40 reporters and journalists in the private media have been arrested although none has been convicted in a court of law. That must be a sobering thought for the minister.


But the minister’s influence on the media in Zimbabwe has been nothing short of uMfecane since he came on the scene in 2000. Over 400 media workers have been forced to leave ZBC Holdings and Zimpapers while the ANZ has been forced to shut down its Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday. The future of the Tribune is uncertain.


The overall impact has been turmoil for journalists and their families. Dozens of them have been dispersed into the diaspora as far afield as America and the UK where they are trying to survive the best they can while back home the minister makes sure he has enough “prison room” for the few journalists remaining. The Zulu people had Dingane and Mkabayi.


So it was that the mourning event for Press Freedom Day organised by ZUJ was held under the pall of a threat by Dr Tafataona Mahoso of the Media and Information Commission that the Tribune risked losing its publishing licence because of administrative anomalies. Apparently there is no other remedy for infringement.


Speaker after speaker mourned the ever-shrinking democratic space in an age when our people should be enjoying the full benefits of Independence. That includes choosing the media one wants to read the way we choose what we want to wear. The irony, as ZUJ president Mathew Takaona pointed out, is that there are more colleges now than at Independence churning out journalists while the market for them is getting squeezed. And government is one of the greatest investors in the training of journalists.


There was a solidarity message from UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, read by United Nations Information Centre staffer Tafadzwa Mumba, and a detailed speech by former attorney-general Andrew Chigovera, now a commissioner on the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights. We were too optimistic to expect something from the Information department.


Moyo’s only comment as reported in the Herald was a bit of casuistry about press freedom not being the same as freedom of expression. It’s so banal. We all know that. All we are saying is everyone has a right to be heard. Media plurality almost certainly increases that chance if the minister ever bothers to read the numerous letters in different newspapers from across a wide section of the population. We cannot all go and gather at Pockets Hill to be interviewed by Reuben Barwe.


I would rather be a guest at the minister’s “prison room” than turn my head into a prison for ideas through self-censorship.


Then there was the dubious accolade of being unfriendly to journalists. That image will be very difficult to shake off with our minister whose temperament is not tempered by diplomacy. Just what was the point of his noisy brawl with Sky News reporters when Zanu PF Information secretary Nathan Shamuyarira had already sanctioned the crew’s visit? That is in addition to dozens of foreign journalists who have been deported in the past two years because they were tarnishing the country’s image. The minister or the journalists?


Members of the press unite!

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