IN a major climbdown yesterday government lifted its ban on 13 British journalists covering England’s five-match one-day international cricket series against Zimbabwe now due to start i
n Harare tomorrow.
The dramatic retreat by Information minister Jonathan Moyo, whose department initially tried to bar the 13 journalists representing Britain’s main media houses, came against a background of yet another clash between the state and the ruling Zanu PF’s warring information departments.
The two departments engaged in a major public spat in May over a Sky News television interview with President Robert Mugabe.
Moyo battled in vain to stop the interview as Nathan Shamuyarira, who heads the ruling party’s information machinery, worked to bring the crew in.
Sources said while Moyo’s department tried to bar the journalists this time, claiming it was still checking their credentials, Shamuyarira was prepared once again to overrule it.
After intense negotiations between Zimbabwe Cricket (formerly the Zimbabwe Cricket Union) and the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) yesterday morning, Moyo finally made a volte-face to allow Sky News, the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and Sun journalists to enter the country. His antics, seen as part of an ongoing campaign against the international media, delayed the first match from today to tomorrow. England are due to arrive this morning.
Moyo’s department retreated after England threatened to boycott the series. Last year England boycotted its one-day cricket World Cup fixture against Zimbabwe due to security concerns after a political row between Harare and London over repression and human rights abuses.
Observers believe Moyo calculated his department would get away with banning the journalists on Tuesday because England would find it difficult to withdraw so close to their arrival scheduled for Wednesday evening.
“Moyo unwittingly provided the ECB with a pretext for withdrawal just as they thought they were finally locked into the series,” a cricket source said yesterday. A number of key personalities were pressed into securing a government retreat, it transpires.
“Zimbabwe needed the series to communicate an impression of normalcy,” the source said.
As a result the journalists were given conditional access into the country after the Information department backed off claiming it had been unable to find their names on their organisation’s websites.
“Inquiries have now been completed and the outstanding 13 journalists have been cleared on the understanding that they will be coming to exclusively cover the cricket matches, not to meddle in the politics of Zimbabwe,” the department said in what was widely seen as a face-saving formula.
The statement reflected the state’s concern that the journalists might write about the situation in Zimbabwe.
The banned journalists were part of 55 reporters who had applied for permission to cover the matches. Only 42 had been accredited.
However, Shamuyarira’s department thought nothing would be achieved by banning the journalists, except feeding negative publicity about government.
He yesterday wrote to Sky News inviting it to the country. While Moyo was anxious to restrict journalists’ coverage, Shamuyarira gave them freedom to also cover politics.
“I am faxing to let you know that Sky News Broadcasting has been granted permission to cover the Zimbabwe/UK (England) cricket matches and the 4th Zanu PF National People’s Congress to be held from 1-5 December 2004,” Shamuyarira said.
“You will be accredited for 14 days. It is however unfortunate that it will not be possible for you to interview Simon Mann as he is a prisoner.”
Mann is a jailed former British Special Air Services commander who was arrested in March in Harare together with 69 other alleged mercenaries.