ON May 9 1996, following dramatic events at the then only remaining privately-owned newspaper in the country, the Financial Gazette (Fingaz), which led to the unceremonious departure of the editor Trevor Ncube and a number of senior staff members, the first edition of the Zimbabwe Independent rolled off the printing press.
Dumisani Muleya,Zimind Editor
The following day, on May 10, the paper hit the streets. Those who were there describe scenes of jubilation and fulfillment which accompanied the beginning of what would turn out — beyond the founders’ imagination — to be a great publishing story. For several newspapers, including Modus Publications’ Daily Gazette and Sunday Gazette, had shut down due to viability problems.
The tiny independent press, partly symbolised by a few monthly magazines, was struggling for survival, hanging onto the market by its fingers nails as the political economy of the media and the operating environment changed just before the turn of the millennium.
Many changes were looming on the horizon in the post-Cold War era and the coming digital age with the advent of the Internet.
Some saw it coming, some didn’t.
The current media upheavals, triggered by a revolution in technology, are now transforming, fundamentally and irrevocably the operating environment, as well as nature of journalism and its ethics. Publishing is now in the hands of citizens, while the internet encourages new forms of interactive and real time reporting.
Our media ecosystem and the terrain itself has now become a chaotic landscape evolving at a fast and furious pace.
Professional journalists now have to share the journalistic sphere with online hacks, tweeters, facebook enthusiasts, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users in general.
The political economy of the media has also changed dramatically. Media organisations are now struggling as audiences migrate online, while advertisers lag behind – creating a disequilibrium which brings instability in relation to the supply, demand, and prices of media products.
The convergence of media and entertainment on cyberspace — the information and data superhighway — and the world of telecoms has triggered disruptions and accelerated changes in consumption and advertising distribution patterns.
Not only has the industry had to move towards the digitisation of products, services and distribution channels, but it also has had to do so while struggling to create engaging customer experiences and reducing costs.
Those who not only want to survive, but also thrive in this new media environment will have to embrace technology and change, while ensuring creative destruction. The new name of the game is simple: disrupt yourself internally and adjust to survive, or be rudely disrupted from outside and risk extinction.
Back to Independent’s story. The launch of the newspaper not only saved broken careers and offered new opportunities to those who wanted to pursue serious independent journalism, free from the fetters of state control and restrictions of proprietors embedded in crony capitalism, but also shaped the media landscape and events in the country.
Today more than ever, independent journalism plays a fundamental role in exposing abuse of power and holding leaders accountable; probing corruption and contributing to democratic processes. The media is central to country’s development agenda.
The Independent is playing is part by providing systematic and reflective approach to covering issues, acting as a public watchdog in relation to governance, accountability and transparency questions. That is over and above scrutinising how power is exercised, public resources are used and markets work.
With deception ubiquitous in the digital era, independent and progressive journalism must separate chaff from wheat, while shedding light in dark corners of society.
The paper later wrote many great stories and propelled journalists’ careers to new heights. It also offered opportunities for media and other graduates who are now editors, PR managers and enterpreneurs as well as academics in and out of the country.
The brainchild of the Independent project was Clive Murphy, Clive Wilson and Ncube.
Its arrival marked the start of a unique publishing enterprise which, over the next two decades, would involve many of Zimbabwe’s best journalists, train many interns and yield a rich harvest of awards.
The paper, which came at an important period in Zimbabwe’s history, was also to become the chronicler of the country’s post-colonial trajectory after an initial one-and-half decade of mainly sunshine journalism — with a few exceptions of course.
The Independent was launched two months after President Robert Mugabe was re-elected unopposed with over 92% of the vote. Prior to that, he had been stopped by Edgar Tekere’s Zum, academics such as Masipula Sithole, Jonathan Moyo, John Makumbe and Ibbo Mandaza from establishing a de jure one-party state which Zanu PF had always wanted since 1980. Zanu PF had also won an overwhelming majority in parliament.
In the meantime, Zimbabwe was at crossroads economically after launching Zimbabwe’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in 1990.
Due to the failures of the command economy in its first decade of independence, the country was now mired in a quagmire of mounting debt, erratic growth, inflation and unemployment. So it turned to the IMF and hence the reform process which was supposed to lead to new era of modernised, competitive and export-led industrialisation.
However, due to a combination of factors the Washington Consensus package largely failed.
So having an independent, inquisitive and investigative media was critical at that point in Zimbabwe’s history.
Penetrating and insightful journalism was badly needed. Society needed a media and journalists who would “read the mind of the country and to give definite and fearless expression to that mind”, as Mahatma Ghandi would have put it.
Over and above that, Zimbabwe needed journalists who understood that working in the media must go beyond earning a salary and making profits for the company.
In other words those who understood, and again in Ghandi’s words, that “journalism should never be prostituted for selfish ends or for the sake of merely earning a livelihood or, worse still, for amassing money”.
The Independent arrived on the scene at the right time. It went on to save independent journalism and trawl through the political economy, breaking many award-winning stories through quality and investigative reporting. (See Z13 for stories and awards).
While holding those in power accountable and exposing corruption, the Independent, through cutting-edge analyses from the country’s literati, including the likes of Mandaza, Moyo, Kempton Makamure, Welshman Ncube, Tony Hawkins, Lovemore Madhuku, John Robertson, Themba Dlodlo, the late Eric Bloch, Makumbe, Geoff Feltoe and Sithole, among others, offered a refreshing brand of reportage and commentary on politics, economics and financial markets.
Later a younger generation of writers such as Pedzisai Ruhanya, Alex Magaisa, Qhubani Moyo, Chris Mhike and Jethro Mpofu, among others, also offered fresh perspectives on issues through the Independent.
Mugabe, who was used to sycophantic and personality cult-reinforcing reporting until Moyo and others disrupted that, regularly came under close scrutiny.
Questions were to be asked if Mugabe was the Stalin of modern Africa, or a patriot fighting to reverse the effects of colonialism and imperial domination?
His story was more systematically reported and dissected. Through the constitutional reform process, land invasions, the hyperinflation era and economic implosion, disputed elections and electoral theft characterised by political intimidation, violence and murder, and the indigenisation programme, Mugabe came under microscopic scrutiny.
It later became clear he was a liberation hero-turned-villain. Myths about him had been dispelled.
As John F Kennedy said: “The greatest enemy of the truth is very often not the lie, deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but myth, persistent, persuasive and unrealistic.”
Mugabe’s story is indeed Zimbabwe’s.
At the height of his power and popularity in 1980, Mugabe was liked — and hated too with equal intensity — by many who saw him as a liberation struggle hero and a progressive leader who could change his people’s lives and the continent for the better.
Many believed — on the basis of his rhetoric and promises rather than substance or evidence — he wanted social equality through promoting equal opportunity.
Mugabe initially seemed credible as he appeared to support economic and social interventions to promote social justice within a socialist framework, and a policy regime involving welfare state aspects, hence regulation of the economy supposedly for the common good and redistribution of income and wealth.
He looked as if he opposed the excesses of capitalism such as inequality, poverty and deprivation, while rejecting a free market economy in favour of a command economic model.
As Stephen Chan showed in Robert Mugabe: A Life of Power and Violence, Mugabe’s story is Zimbabwe’s — from the post-Independence hopes of idealism and reconciliation to electoral victory, intervention in regional politics and resistance to apartheid South Africa even though, of course, declassified documents in Pretoria have now exposed his opportunism and duplicity.
Chan described how a darker picture of Mugabe emerged early, with the savage repression of Zapu and Joshua Nkomo’s supporters in the southwestern region, elimination of political opponents, growing corruption and disastrous intervention in the Congo War, all worsened by his lust for power and trappings of office.
As a beleaguered leader in the face of growing social unrest, Mugabe resorted to desperate measures — seizing white-owned farms, grabbing companies, increasing presidential powers, arresting journalists and muzzling the media and crushing any opposition. This, coupled with his ineptitude and mismanagement, ruined the economy and impoverished the nation.
Chan’s narrative depicted the emergence of a ruthless and single-minded despot amassing wealth and clinging to political power. He showed how the triumphant nationalist leader who initially reconciled all in the new multiracial Zimbabwe 1980 later degenerated into a petty tyrant consumed by hubris and self-righteousness, now facing an endgame of tragic dimensions.
The Independent, and other media houses, especially those recording moving images which have irrevocably redefined our experience and construction of reality, vividly chronicled these events and processes — history in motion.