ZIMBABWE’S state security agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), is seeking to emulate South Africa’s apartheid-era information blitz by covertly taking over newspapers hitherto
seen as independent of state control.
As state-owned media lose their credibility, the government regards control of the independent press as a more viable route to win the hearts and minds of a restive population.
Information obtained from high-level intelligence sources shows the CIO in 2002 started manoeuvres to muscle into the Financial Gazette and the Mirror Newspapers Group’s two titles, the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, which they now control. Billions of taxpayers’ funds were poured in to the project.
The CIO tried and failed to buy into the Tribune and is currently making moves to muscle into the ruling Zanu PF mouthpiece, The Voice.
“The CIO controls those three newspapers (Fingaz and Mirror titles),” an intelligence source said this week. “They control a large stake, if not 100% of the Fingaz, and 70% of the Mirror group. Ibbo Mandaza (Mirror chief executive and editor-in-chief) owns 30%,” the source said.
Mandaza was not able to comment, saying: “Phone me later, I’m on another line.”
It is thought the CIO copied its strategy of owning newspapers through shelf companies or as silent shareholders from Angola where the largest circulating daily is owned by the intelligence service.
South Africa’s intelligence machinery in the 1970s was involved in setting up newspapers and covertly occupying media space in what became known as the Muldergate scandal.
CIO director-general Happyton Bonyongwe was said to have been the chief engineer of the media project when current Labour minister Nicholas Goche was still in the State Security portfolio. Repeated efforts to get comment from him failed yesterday.
It is understood the CIO seconded intelligence officers to the Mirror group to re-organise the media house. Officers in Bonyongwe’s office, including Emmanuel Gumbo who was attached to the CIO External Branch, have been working on the project.
Sources said Gumbo recruited three staff members of the now defunct Information and Publicity Department, Georgina Sabawo, Chris Murimbi, and Joseph Neuso, to assist in his enterprise.
It was also said the CIO has deployed its own media specialist, Alexander Kanengoni, as deputy editor-in-chief of the Mirror papers. Kanengoni, a former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings head of TV services, runs the papers. Another CIO agent, Sign Chavonga, now based at “Red Bricks” (CIO headquarters), was at one time attached to the Mirror.
The Mirror newspapers have no editors since the departure of Innocent Sithole but only deputy editors, Tichaona Chifamba (Daily Mirror) and Ruzvidzo Mupfudza (Sunday Mirror), who report to Kanengoni.
Sources said the covert operation was revealed through an audit done by CIO assistant director for administration, Memory Chasakara, who was subsequently promoted to hush her up.
Chasakara is understood to have complained after discovering the CIO was paying up to 83% of the Mirror group’s operating costs. She was then kicked upstairs.
The sources said the CIO also tried in vain to buy into the closed Tribune newspaper. Bonyongwe was said to be anxious to add The Voice to his stable.
Sources said the CIO was also instrumental in the closure of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) titles, the Daily News and Daily News on Sunday. The two papers were closed in 2003. Another paper, The Weekly Times, was also closed earlier this year.
Zimbabwe’s media tyranny has been escalating in recent years in tandem with rising political repression. Dozens of journalists have been arrested, while foreign correspondents were deported under draconian media laws.
Sources said the intelligence service influenced the recent decision by the Media and Information Commission (MIC), led by government-media columnist Tafataona Mahoso, to refuse to reopen the ANZ whose flagship Daily News was twice bombed during its short life between 1999 and 2003. Nobody has been prosecuted. The MIC also recently denied the Tribune an operating licence.
The CIO is understood to have staged a dramatic boardroom coup in 2002 against Octadew consortium that was headed by former Financial Gazette editor-in-chief Francis Mdlongwa.
Octadew comprised Harare-based medical doctors and businessmen, Sylvester Saburi and Solomon Mthethwa in addition to Mdlongwa. The group initially bought the paper from Elias Rusike’s Hamba Investments Holdings.
The agreement of sale was signed on October 1 2002 after both parties had agreed on an evaluation of $200 million by the Financial Gazette’s financial advisors, the MBCA, as the price tag.
Rusike had sold the paper to Octadew on the strict understanding that the new owners would maintain an “editorial policy that is independent of any government, political party, and/or big business”.
The editorial charter was incorporated in the agreement of sale.
However, differences later emerged between Octadew and the then CBZ (now trading as Jewel Bank) chief executive, Gideon Gono, who was said to have secured equity by putting the consortium under financial pressure.
Gono had financial leverage because Octadew had borrowed the $200 million from the CBZ to finance the deal. Gono said in 2002 he did not own the Financial Gazette because he was only a “financial advisor” in the deal.
It was said the CIO had no difficulty moving into the Mirror group because it owed CBZ a lot of money after failing to attract advertisers.
Sources said Gono forced the Financial Gazette to create the position of financial director to accommodate his appointee, Blazio Tafireyi, when there was a financial manager, Albert Mushonga, already in place. Tafireyi has since left the paper. It is widely thought this was done to ensure the real owners of the paper got to know the financial state of affairs at their new company.
“After Octadew paid Rusike $200 million through Hamba Investments, it became clear something was wrong with the deal,” a source said. “All sorts of problems emerged and it inevitably collapsed after a short period. A boardroom coup had been staged.”
In a statement issued on November 6 2002, Octadew said the deal had broken down due to “differences centering on the implementation of the newspapers’ broad vision and operation issues”.
After the deal failed, Octadew owners went to South Africa in a last-ditch effort to secure funds from exiled tycoon Strive Masiyiwa who owns mobile cellphone company Econet. Octadew had failed to find alternative funding locally due to the credit crunch in the market.
Masiyiwa refused to help out.
“Masiyiwa asked what was in the deal for him,” a source said. “He was also surprised how Octadew wanted him to fund a closed deal which could not be opened by any amount of capital outlay. He told Octadew he couldn’t give them money because in any case he wasn’t a bank.”
When options ran out for Octadew, Rusike, who wanted the paper bought by independent owners, could not find a white knight to salvage the Financial Gazette or sufficient shark repellent to deal with the CIO who were circling behind the scenes.
Sources said the CIO grand plan was to buy into as many private papers as possible to win the hearts and minds of an increasingly sceptical population amid deteriorating social and economic conditions.
This initiative was intended to redefine the media landscape and help the increasingly unpopular government to hold sway across a vast swathe of the territory of public opinion.
Sources said the CIO media bid was akin to South Africa’s Muldergate scandal, sometimes called Infogate, in the late 1970s when the apartheid regime embarked on a massive covert campaign to set up newspapers at home and buy space in foreign media. Connie Mulder was Minister of Information at the time.