People must fight for a free press

By Bill Saidi

WITH so much time on my hands these days and nights I have tried to sit through an entire screening of Tazzen Mandizvidza’s Media Watch – in vain. Listening to it, I suddenly feel dehydrated an

d begin to hyperventilate and can sense the beginnings of apoplexy.


To save my life, I turn off the TV and listen to Ella Fitzgerald as she thanks the Almighty that she is no longer oversexed, in Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.


I recently managed to suspend all reason and listen to Mandizvidza and his ubiquitous analysts advance the weird, but fairly common Zanu PF textbook theory, that all journalists who criticise their government are pro-Western.


I wonder if they realise how utterly absurd this theory is. The phrase pro-Western dates back to the Cold War. Perhaps they are too young to remember what that ideological creature was. It featured a battle for the hearts and minds of the developing world between the West and – you guessed it – the East. If you were pro-Western, it followed that you were anti-Eastern. In other words, you leaned, ideologically, towards Washington rather than Moscow. In this unipolar world today, there is no East. Moscow is the capital of the Russian Federation and not Uncle Sam’s mortal enemy, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.


That union’s demise was signalled by Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost in the 1980s. Soon, the Cold War had been killed by the blazing fire of an East-West accommodation which survives to this day, even if the US invasion of Iraq may have occasioned a major hiccup in its stability. But for Africa and the rest of the developing world, the struggle for world conquest, the raison d’etre for the Cold War, is no more.


Being pro-Western today is as oddball as being pro-abortion in a country where there are no laws against abortion. Some suspect the United States, because it believes it won the Cold War, would now like to make the rest of the world its 51st state. Others believe humankind was the biggest winner and will not let one single power claim the spoils for itself. But this is to digress.


For the African journalist, the freedom to criticise the government of their country is not inspired by some nebulous self-righteous urge to “promote” Western ideology, or the even more dubious desire to ape the Western press, which is extremely irreverent in its treatment of its governments and their leaders. African leaders, it would seem, want all their citizens, but particularly journalists, to treat them as if they were God’s gift to their very existence.


Quite simply, the journalists’ criticism of their governments and leaders is inspired by what inspired the very first journalists – to fight for the rights of the underdog and not allow the rich and powerful to trample on those rights with impunity. During the struggle in Zimbabwe, many African journalists were in no doubt that their fight was for the rights of the Africans, whose rights, at the time, were being blithely trampled underfoot by the colonialists.

Most such journalists were fierce critics of the colonial regimes, yet, after Independence, remained as fiercely critical of the new governments as they were of the old – for the same reasons. Their reasons had absolutely nothing to do with being pro-Western or pro-Eastern. In all cases, they were pro-country. This was not in the namby-pamby fashion of “my country, right or wrong”. Essentially, it rose out of their outrage at a government which had promised its people a land of milk and honey or “an egg a day” – then offered them monkey nuts instead. Two journalists from the African Daily News era come easily to the fore as fine examples of fierce critics of both the colonial and the post-colonial governments.


I found both Willie Musarurwa and Kelvin Mlenga at African Newspapers in 1957, the former at the African Weekly, the latter on the African Daily News. Let me start with Mlenga, who worked immediately under Nathan Shamuyarira. In 1962 he moved to the then Northern Rhodesia to work on the Central African Mail under the editorship of Richard Hall, who had worked on London’s Daily Mail with such luminaries as Derek Ingram, later to found Gemini News Service, probably the first international feature service agency dedicated to the third world.


Like the African Daily News, Mlenga’s paper was uncompromisingly pro-African and pro-Independence. After Independence, when the government of President Kenneth Kaunda had taken over the paper and changed its name to the Zambia Mail, Mlenga fell out with the ruling Unip party and was soon out of a job. He was replaced by a Briton.


I doubt that Mlenga was fired because he was pro-Western because his British replacement, as far as I knew, was not pro-Eastern, having come straight from being the Reuters correspondent in Norway. Musarurwa’s story is much the same. When he was unceremoniously fired from his Sunday Mail job, it was not because he had suddenly been infected with a pro-Western virus, but because he had become so palpably pro-Zimbabwe. Zanu PF could not stomach this; it prefers its editors to be pro-Zanu PF rather than pro-Zimbabwe.


As World Press Freedom Day looms next week, the future of journalism in Zimbabwe looks bleak, unless the people of Zimbabwe decide it is their birthright, nay, part of their freedom, to enjoy a free press. There are times when one gets the distinct impression that the people are totally indifferent to a free press as a catalyst either for change or for the betterment of their own freedoms as citizens.


The other day, Raymond Majongwe, the teachers’ union leader, gave me a cassette of his recording, the Daily News.


Unfortunately, when I tried to play it on my machine all I could hear was the sound of silence. I intend to ask him for a better one next time we meet. Many people think Majongwe is rather eccentric in his quest for a free press. Yet most journalists find his loud denunciation of the persecution of the press refreshing in a country most of whose citizens seem to take the suppression of a free press in their stride. If more people were as “eccentric” as Majongwe is towards a free press, then there would probably be no Aippa on our statute books.


* Bill Saidi is editor of the Daily News on Sunday, currently banned.