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Hollow tales full of sound and fury

Dumisani Muleya

THAT’S the week that was! After breaking the media scandal that the state security agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), had taken over three private newspapers, there were ang

ry reactions and denials.

Our reports said the CIO had a buy-out at the Financial Gazette and the Mirror group’s two titles, the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror. For about a week there were no denials. In fact, there has not been any official denial except remarks by Ibbo Mandaza, editor-in-chief of the Mirror group, and his Financial Gazette counterpart, Sunsleey Chamunorwa.

First it was Mandaza who made denials in foreign radio stations in South Africa and United States. He later made similar denials in the Daily Mirror on Friday.

On Thursday last week Chamunorwa weighed in with an opinion-editorial piece, which he tried to pass for a company statement.

Then on Monday we had a cynical comment from former Financial Gazette editor-in-chief Francis Mdlongwa.

On Tuesday the Financial Gazette’s board member Supa Mandiwanzira organised another whitewash effort on Zimbabwe’s state television in which he brought Mandaza and Media and Information Commission chair Tafataona Mahoso.

It was a dismal shot at obfuscation.

It was difficult to miss the fingerprints of desperation in all these efforts. The denials by Chamunorwa and Mdlongwa showed the anxiety of a cat on a hot tin roof.

Mandaza claimed he was the “100% owner” of the Mirror group, but his company profile shows the newspapers were since August 2003 owned by “various Zimbabwean business people”.

The political economy of the media in Zimbabwe would make it difficult for Mandaza to run those papers alone, especially given their weak advertising and poor sales. The papers have a weak economic base to survive without an injection of huge funds, not just bank overdrafts but a massive capital outlay.

Chamunorwa ducked key issues using diversionary tactics. He failed to come up with a credible response on the main issue: Who owns the Financial Gazette? The vague suggestion was that it was owned by central bank governor Gideon Gono who in the past made it clear he was not the owner.

Chamunorwa himself, when he was still Gono’s spokesperson at the CBZ, said Gono was not the owner. But he went all over the place constructing a great smokescreen to cover up the scandal. He even tried to clutch at the straw of tribalism but it did not work. Hence the story won’t go away.

Chamunorwa and Mdlongwa claimed they were not contacted for comment.

To answer Chamunorwa first, we phoned Gono as the supposed owner.

Mdlongwa’s claim that he was not contacted for a comment was not just misleading but malicious.

Ideally it would be better not to react to Mdlongwa’s false claims. However, given the gravity of his allegations, it would be a dereliction of duty not to.

It was open season for Mdlongwa to attack the Zimbabwe Independent and its sister paper, the Mail & Guardian, via a long tirade – over 1 000 words – for allegedly not contacting him. He was even abusive, claiming the papers used “Gestapo-style activities to shut out the voices of those who are being vilified”.

It is not clear what Mdlongwa’s problems with the two papers are. But we would hate to think he is so small-minded as to reduce his failed attempt to buy into the Financial Gazette or to become editor of the Independent and the Mail & Guardian – which he wanted by the way – to this level.

For Mdlongwa to insinuate that the Independent and the Mail & Guardian are “the greatest threat to press freedom and democracy” shows his malice knows no bounds.The truth is we tried last week and the week before to get comment from him. It must be recorded that we sought to get the truth about Mdlongwa’s own side of the story way back in 2002 when the saga started but he blocked us as he scrambled to cover up.

Instead of giving us straight answers he resorted to antics like claiming there was “no story” or it was “beerhall talk”. We also contacted him three months ago when we were still investigating the story but he was hostile.

This week was a classic example of how unhelpful he can be. We phoned him but instead of allowing a civilised conversation, he went ballistic. We called his bluff and let him go.

He then sent an e-mail to the Independent editor complaining that we were rude to him and we should not communicate with him on any issue again. Why should we communicate with someone who wants to suppress news under a sludge of angry rhetoric?

It is surprising for him to turn around and pontificate about ethical journalism when he sought to defeat the same thing by avoiding constructive engagement, only to issue a malicious statement which, to borrow Shakespeare’s words, read like a “tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing!”

It is instructive that Mdlongwa makes a big fuss about the whole story when he only had this to say on the central issue: “Whether the Financial Gazette today is, as is claimed, owned by Zimbabwe’s secret service, I do not know because I have no such facts and I have had no such evidence.”

In other words, he is angry that he was not contacted to say nothing! Is this what he meant by getting “critical comment from me”?

While we respect his democratic entitlement to indulge in mumbo jumbo, we expected from him an account told with an insider’s authority, not misdirected polemics.

Mdlongwa had the temerity to sign himself a moral cheque at once open and blank to accuse the newspapers of trying to rehabilitate people who allegedly committed “crimes against humanity”. He also claimed we had launched “a coordinated campaign of disinformation”.

We reject his preposterous claims. We also dismiss his baseless allegations that the publisher of the Independent and Mail & Guardian “found it necessary to mobilise connected reporters in South Africa into picking up the Independent story so as to give it ‘wider and maximum’ publicity in their own news organisations in South Africa and abroad”.

Mdlongwa insinuated we were “driven by a blind pursuit of bigger media audiences and super-profits or other agendas” and that this reduced “an otherwise noble profession into an instrument of systematic harassment and torture of all who are unfortunate not to own a media outlet of their own”.

Mdlongwa tried to hold forth on his pretensions of being the custodian of “accurate, impartial and balanced” reporting. His professional record carries a moral hazard. Has he forgotten stories he published as Financial Gazette editor such as the “earth-shattering scoop” in 2002 which claimed President Robert Mugabe had dug Al Qaeda-like bunkers at State House to hide if he lost the presidential election?

Now where are the bunkers? Did Mdlongwa see them or he just published an urban legend as news? Is that Mdlongwa’s version of “accurate, impartial, and balanced” reporting?

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