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Private newspapers under threat

Constantine Chimakure/Shakeman Mugari

THE viability of independent newspapers is under serious threat after government this week ordered privately-owned papers to slash

their cover prices.

The National Incomes and Pricing Commission (NIPC) ordered the Zimbabwe Independent and the Financial Gazette to reduce prices from $600 000 to $150 000.

The Independent’s sister publication, The Standard, was also directed to reduce its cover price. The directive comes after police arrested the chief executive of the Zimind Publishers, Raphel Khumalo, and Financial Gazette CEO Jacob Chisese last Friday on allegations of increasing prices of their newspapers without NIPC approval.

Khumalo and Chisese were quizzed over the increases. They were summoned to appear before the NIPC at Runhare House on Monday and told to revert to the old price of $150 000, an amount they say cannot cover their costs.

Khumalo said the directive could lead to closure of the newspapers that are already struggling to survive because of escalating costs of fuel, labour, ink, and newsprint.

It currently costs about $950 000 to print a single copy of the Independent, he said. “A newspaper is not a basic commodity. It seems that when all the media laws have failed to get the newspapers closed this new crackdown could finally force private newspapers to shut down,” Khumalo said.

While government keeps the lid on the prices of newspapers, other costs that come with the printing of papers have skyrocketed.

For instance, a printing plate that cost $1,9 million in June is now going for $12 million. A plate is used to transfer an image on to newsprint. No newspaper in Zimbabwe can function without them. Every page uses a separate plate for printing.

The cost of films has also gone up drastically over the past three months. A single roll of film that cost $49 million in June now costs $315 million before Value Added Tax. The films are imported from Japan. Foreign currency is not available on the official market.

The cost of fuel, a key input in the distribution of newspapers, has also gone up dramatically, tracking the US dollar. At Monday’s meeting Khumalo and Chisese failed to reach an understanding with NIPC chairman Godwills Masimirembwa.

The two executives explained to Masimirembwa that the price of $150 000 was unviable. They told him that newspapers could be forced to shut down because of crippling loses. But he was indifferent to their plight.

He insisted that his commission had only approved a $150 000 peg and that this price should be in operation for three months.

In approving the $150 000, the NIPC used the state-owned Sunday Mail as its benchmark. Privately-owned newspapers however argued that their cost structures were different from those of the state-owned newspapers which get subsidised fuel.

Privately-owned newspapers have to source fuel at $1,3 million a litre. State-owned papers also get a trade discount on newsprint, a privilege that private newspapers do not enjoy.

The renewed pressure on private newspapers comes less than a month after President Robert Mugabe appointed Masimirembwa, a Herald columnist, to chair the NIPC.

Even before his appointment, Masimirembwa did not make a secret of his hatred for the Independent.

In his column on October 26, Masimirembwa included the Independent among “enemies of the people” for publishing an article that Mugabe had named Rural and Social Amenities minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, Defence minister Sydney Sekeramayi, Speaker of the House of Assembly John Nkomo and former Finance minister Simba Makoni as his possible successors, and suggested none of them was up to it.

“The so-called independent media owes it to the people of Zimbabwe to report the truth, guided always by a desire to build our nation, and not be an instrument in promoting the divisive agenda of former colonial masters,” Masimirembwa wrote in the overheated language of the ruling party.

“If the so-called independent media abdicates this responsibility, then we can be forgiven for labelling them ‘enemies of the people’ not worthy of belonging to the corpus of media houses that deserve the tag the Fourth Estate.”

When Masimirembwa was approached recently by a reporter from the Independent after a press conference, he dismissed him saying: “Read what I think about the Independent in today’s Herald. You are not a serious newspaper.”

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