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Mediagate deepens

Dumisani Muleya

THERE were frantic efforts this week to contain the fallout from the biggest scandal to rock the media industry since Independence in 1980 after revelations in this paper that the Central Int

elligence Organisation (CIO) had taken over three major private newspapers.

The editors-in-chief of the papers that were reported to be owned by the CIO, the Financial Gazette and the Mirror Group titles, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror, made desperate efforts to deny the story which has sent shockwaves in the media fraternity.

Like his Mirror Group counterpart, Ibbo Mandaza, Financial Gazette editor Sunsleey Chamunorwa yesterday tried to deny the story broken by this paper last week with an opinion-editorial piece long on words but short on substance.

Chamunorwa could only say the paper was owned by “a credible shareholder”. There were no names but descriptions which raised the question of why the sponsors of the paper should remain anonymous. The description of the main shareholder could match that of Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono, who has in the past denied owning the paper but is a financial advisor.

It has been learnt that Mandaza fuelled trouble on Wednesday after suspending without pay and benefits his deputy editor-in-chief, Alexander Kanengoni, allegedly deployed to the Mirror by the CIO. Last night the Zimbabwe Independent heard that Kanengoni had been locked out of his office at the Mirror Group.

The story roped in the CBZ (Jewel Bank) and, by implication, its main shareholder, South African banking giant Absa, which provided $200 million for the take-over of the Financial Gazette in October 2001. The take-over negotiations ran between October 2001 and November 2002.

Absa African division head Dana Botha said yesterday his bank was not in a position to deal with the issue. “We have a board representation but we don’t have management and operational control over CBZ,” he said.

“The CEO Nyasha Makuvise should be able to deal with that.”

Marathon crisis management meetings at the media houses failed to allay anxiety among staffers.

Sources said there was no decision on what to do at the Financial Gazette after Chamunorwa tried but failed to secure the support of Gono to deny the story. Chamunorwa had to come up with the opinion article, which he wanted to pass for a company statement.

On the main issue of the ownership structure, Chamunorwa could only say his newspaper was owned by “a group of individuals with impeccable financial, commercial and business credentials.

“They are not CIO agents; neither does this newspaper have under its employ anyone answerable to the state or any of its agents.”

Then there was the disclosure: “I have not checked with the major shareholder but for the record, let me put this issue to rest once and for all. The major shareholder is a prominent banker, Zimbabwe’s best known turnaround expert, farmer and businessman.”

The description fits that of Gono, whom Chamunorwa has in the past described as “Mr Turnaround”.

Observers and readers who called the Independent said the fact that Gono could own a financial paper was in itself a scandal.

“How ethical is it for a central bank governor to own a business newspaper which has failed to criticise the failed policies of the perceived shareholder?” said a manager with a commercial bank.

The Mirror also ran into problems as management was divided on what to do, while the CIO maintained a low profile to avoid fanning the crisis.

Accusations and counter-accusations flew thick and fast during the week.

Sources said Mandaza, who tried to deny the story on foreign radio stations after he was shut out by the CIO, suspended Kanengoni.

Mandaza told SAfm and Voice of America on Monday he was the sole owner of the Mirror newspapers but sources maintained the CIO were the real owners.

He did not deny there were CIO operatives in his newsroom, but claimed he was not aware of it.

He said he had launched an internal investigation to find out if CIO details were operating in the group. Mandaza said if the probe revealed the CIO were there, he would ask the authorities to withdraw them.

Government remained mum as the furore intensified. Former State Security minister Nicholas Goche, under whose charge the newspaper scandal occurred, refused to comment.

“I am not the minister for the CIO,” he said. “In any case, I don’t comment on such matters over the telephone.”

Acting Information minister Chen Chimutengwende said: “I’m not sure what the situation is. I have not been briefed.”

Mandaza, who is also the Mirror Group CEO, was said to have written a letter to Kanengoni accusing him of assaulting the news editor of the Sunday Mirror, harassing journalists, shouting obscenities, insubordination and incompetence. Kanengoni and his backers reportedly accused Mandaza of misusing funds and failing to ensure the papers increased circulation to generate sufficient advertising revenue.

Mandaza was said to be fighting for survival at the company after a head-on clash with a powerful CIO-backed group led by his chairman, Jonathan Kadzura. It was said the CIO had been angered by Mandaza’s antics and wanted him booted out. He was understood to have accused the CIO of trying to destroy the Mirror, while the Kadzura faction blamed Mandaza for leaking the story.

Before the scandal was exposed, sources said Mandaza complained to political and business associates about the presence of CIO operatives in his newsroom.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba recently made insinuations Chamunorwa worked with and for the powers-that-be in his Nathaniel Manheru column in the Herald. Despite Chamunorwa’s pretence that he was not under political influence, sources said there were instances when stories were given to him to publish directly from the President’s Office.

“We have many examples, including the false story the Fingaz published in December last year claiming (former Information Jonathan) Moyo had resigned,” a source said. “It had come from the President’s Office.”

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