This is a continuation of last week’s interview of veteran local journalist-turned politician, Geoffrey Nyarota (GN), by Zimbabwe Independent chief reporter Owen Gagare (OG).
OG: You contributed a lot to the Zimbabwe media. What do you see as your successes?
GN: I believe my greatest achievement in the Zimbabwean media was the launch of the Daily News in 1999 and seeing it grow to become the country’s largest, most popular and most influential newspaper in one year. Seeing a new newspaper rise from zero to 129 500 copies sold in one day is no mean achievement by any standard and I am proud of that. I also believe I have been instrumental in keeping the flame of investigative journalism burning in Zimbabwe.
OG: You won many awards but there was a general feeling among colleagues that you hogged the limelight at the expense of your foot soldiers. What do you say to that?
GN: Very interesting question indeed. Leaders quite often bask in the glory of the achievements of their organisations, much as they are singly castigated and often forced to resign for the collective failure of their staff. That is natural.
Do the winners of the various categories of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists’ annual journalism awards ever go back to their newsrooms to share their prizes with colleagues?
The majority of my nine international awards were in the form of trophies. One award took me to the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Should I have taken the Daily News staff with me there? From a different perspective, when I was repeatedly arrested and when an assassin was hired to kill me, I never heard colleagues complaining that I was stealing the limelight. They never even came to Harare Central or Rhodesville police stations to check on me. Only my wife came.
OG: You were the editor of the Chronicle when the Willowgate scandal broke. What role did Mines minister Obert Mpofu play in helping you with the investigations?
GN: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post had their “Deep Throat”, Mark Felt who provided them with secret information in 1972 about the involvement of President Richard Nixon’s administration in what came to be known as the Watergate scandal. Mpofu, who was then general manager of the Zimbabwe Grain Bag Company in Bulawayo in 1988, was my “Deep Throat” in the Willowgate Scandal.
OG: Although you did very well with the Willowgate story, your critics say you were unwilling to cover the biggest story of the time, the Gukurahundi massacres. How do you respond to these allegations?
GN: By denying the allegations! My critics make one cardinal mistake. They look at me today –– a highly successful and multiple award-winning journalist, then take me back in time to locate me in the office of the editor of the Chronicle in 1983, 30 years ago. They conveniently ignore the fact that at the material time I was a young journalist, a 32-year old father of two, with one year experience as an editor at Manica Post, a small weekly newspaper from where I was promoted in April 1983.
My critics then make another serious mistake. They overlook the very important fact that the Chronicle was owned by the Government of Zimbabwe, the perpetrators of Gukurahundi.
They forget that government declared a state of emergency and imposed a curfew over the operational areas, thus rendering access by journalists virtually impossible, or suicidal to say the least.
It is important to note that the Chronicle was by no means the only news outlet covering Matabeleland. In Bulawayo there was the Sunday News, the Bulawayo Bulletin, Ziana and the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. They have surprisingly all escaped public censure over Gukurahundi. Perhaps this is because their editors did not subsequently become award-winning journalists many years later.
Therefore, their professional obligations at the time are deemed to have been of no or lesser consequence.
My critics also overlook the heavy presence of the foreign press in Zimbabwe at the crucial time. Why are the Ian Mills and John Edlins of the BBC and Reuters (may their souls collectively rest in peace), as well as the many other accomplished foreign journalists covering Zimbabwe at the time, not accused by my so-called critics of failure to cover the biggest story of the time.
After all, their organisations were not owned by the Government of Zimbabwe? In fact, it was Donald Trelford, editor of the Observer, who finally broke the jinx by flying in from London, mysteriously venturing into Matabeleland South and interviewing victims of Gukurahundi. Then he caught the next plane out of Harare. Only when he was back in the safety of his office in London did he bash out his sensational story for publication.
Even then he was disowned and dismissed as an incorrigible liar by none other than his own publisher, the powerful and fearless Tiny Rowland, boss of Lonrho, owners of the Observer. As my young critics bay for my blood today all these pertinent issues surrounding the inadequate coverage of the Gukurahundi atrocities are conveniently ignored.
I devoted a whole chapter in my book, Against the Grain: Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman to Gukurahundi. The book was published in South Africa. A second edition is being prepared for publication in Zimbabwe by Buffalo Communication.
OG: You were later fired from the Chronicle, then the Financial Gazette and also the Daily News. What happened and how do you feel about it?
GN: I was fired from my position as editor of the Chronicle because I exposed corruption in government, resulting in the resignation of six cabinet ministers and suicide by one. The owners of the newspaper, government, reacted angrily and removed me. I was also fired from the Financial Gazette because my boss, the late Elias Rusike made a sacrificial lamb of me when his company Modus Publications wanted to import a new printing press from Sweden. He required a foreign currency allocation from government. Government wanted me out of the editor’s office. There was a trade-off. I sued for illegal dismissal and won the case.
My dismissal from the Daily News was a little more complex. My chief executive officer, Sam Sipepa Nkomo, sought to settle scores with an editor, myself, who exposed his corruption and caused his dismissal from his job as CEO of the Mining Industry Pension Fund. A while later he resurfaced as my boss at ANZ. My fate was sealed. Well, I feel exploited and cheated over the years.
OG: The Daily News was closed under your watch because it had not registered. With the benefit of hindsight, do you think you could have done things differently and avoided the closure of the paper?
GN: It is not true that the Daily News was closed under my watch. I was fired from the paper on January 2, 2003. The paper was closed eight months later, on September 12.
I had personally argued in favour of the registration of the Daily News, acting in concert with other editors under the ambit of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum, of which I was chairman. Other independent papers, the Zimbabwe Independent, Financial Gazette and Standard, registered. But Nkomo, who was really an outsider in the media world, held a different opinion for some strange reason.
I was fired. Nkomo refused to register the paper. The then Information minister Jonathan Moyo duly banned it and the rest is now painful history.
OG: As an experienced journalist what do you think about the state of the media in Zimbabwe and its prospects going into the future?
GN: I know I will be roasted, hauled over live coals and generally excoriated for saying it, but somebody must say this: The quality of journalism has deteriorated tremendously over the years. Investigative stories inherently sell more newspapers than reported speeches, praise-songs composed in honour of politicians, or the self-indulgent outpourings of so-called analysts. Newspaper circulations have thus plummeted.