Walking through a political minefield

THE beginnings of the Zimbabwe Independent and its associates, The Standard and NewsDay, contained elements of both comedy and farce. Their genesis lay in preceding events at the Financial Gazette (Fingaz) which had been in circulation since 1969.

IDEN WETHERELL

Its owner, Elias Rusike had bought the paper in 1989 from Clive Murphy, and taken on board Geoff Nyarota who had distinguished himself by exposing the Willowgate scandal in the late 1980s in which ministers acquired vehicles at knock-down prices and then resold them for a fortune.

Nyarota eventually fell victim to Rusike’s growing anxiety about his pioneering staff, and was superseded by Nyarota’s deputy, Trevor Ncube, originally from the Economic History department at the University of Zimbabwe.

Things, however, didn’t get any better, especially after the paper claimed President Robert Mugabe had married his secretary Grace at a ceremony presided over by a judge on the lawn of State House.

The story was problematic. Mugabe had developed a relationship with his secretary and had children with her, but the judge was not present and there was no such wedding. Rusike and Ncube were arrested and prosecuted for the false story.

The state’s chief witness, the head of the state intelligence service, CIO, denied ever having met the journalist who supposedly gave the paper the story.

In fact, the paper had almost certainly been fed the false story by a plant.

Hard on the heels of this story came another, much less sinister piece. A reputable news agency claimed the late South African President Nelson Mandela’s aircraft, lining up to land in Harare with several others which got there first, should be given priority.

In mitigation we should say that nearly every newspaper in South Africa used the story, but it was the straw that broke the camel’s back for Rusike. Ncube was fired followed by me.

A nice irony was the fact that the businessmen who subsequently launched the Independent were those who had sold the Fingaz to Rusike in 1989. The three main players at the launch of the Independent were Clive Murphy, a businessman and publisher, Clive Wilson, former editor of the Fingaz, and Ncube.

Ncube was the editor of the new publication with myself as his deputy. Coming on board from the Fingaz were prominent journalists Barnabas Thondlana, Sunseely Chamunorwa and Basildon Peta.

The Fingaz had been and still is a pink paper in terms of complexion. Ncube caused some amusement at the launch of the Independent by announcing it would be a “white paper”, thus confirming the suspicions of the government moles present!

The paper got off to a running start. We were the first publication in Zimbabwe to make use of the Internet just as it was coming to life. There was a downside to this. I soon found myself threatened by what looked suspiciously like the regime’s Tonton Macoutes who warned me to keep an eye on my rear-view mirror. It sounded like a Hitchkock film!

The government director of information, the late Bornwell Chakaodza, was convinced we were writing letters to ourselves in the editor’s column. Chakaodza subsequently became editor of another of our publications, The Standard, and quickly understood we had neither the time nor the inclination to write submissions to ourselves!

Then there was an international dimension. When Zimbabwe sent its forces into the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1998 to shore up the assassinated Laurent Kabila’s regime, he was supported by Namibia and Angola. Mandela’s government was furious that Mugabe had acted unilaterally. Mugabe was acting on a mandate from Sadc’s security wing. He was obliged eventually to first seek a consensus when acting on behalf of Sadc.

In 1999 The Standard soon got itself into serious trouble when the army arrested two of its journalists, editor Mark Chavunduka and chief reporter Ray Choto in January 1999 and subjected them to severe torture for writing a story about an alleged coup plot.

This episode which lasted over a week and saw the journalists sent overseas for medical treatment marked the beginning of the state’s intense hostility towards the press. Colonial legislation aimed at the suppression of the media was refurbished as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) passed in January 2002.

When Edison Zvobgo, chairman of the parliamentary legal committee, brought the legislation to the House he said he could say without equivocation that “the Bill in its original form was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the constitution in the 20 years I have served as a cabinet minister”.

By now the two newspapers in our stable had been joined by another independent paper, the Daily News, owned by the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe. Edited by Nyarota, the paper was harassed and its staff arrested as regularly as we were.

In 2001 the Daily News was bombed and its printing press destroyed. We expressed solidarity by helping to print their paper on our machines.

In 2003 the first test case under Aippa resulted in a judgement for American journalist Andrew Meldrum who won his case on the grounds that the police refused to answer his questions. The authorities exacted a harsh punishment by cancelling his residence permit which he had held for 23 years. He was filmed fighting off his captors as he was led to the airport.

The year 2002 marked a new low point in relations between the government and the press with then Information minister Prof essor Jonathan Moyo leading the charge for the regime. This writer and two colleagues from the Independent, News editor Vincent Kahiya and chief reporter Dumisani Muleya were arrested and detained under Aippa.

Throughout this period the Independent maintained a robust resistance to state attacks on its independence buttressed by South Africa’s Mail & Guardian which Ncube had now acquired as he expanded his media empire.

This was a period in which the newly-formed opposition MDC dominated the political landscape. It was successful in 2000 in securing a “No” vote against the government’s attempt to impose a new constitution. It performed remarkably well in the 2000 parliamentary poll and 2002 presidential polls and again in the 2005 parliamentary poll, as well as in the 2008 general elections in which Mugabe lost the first round of polling to MDC-T leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

Harare and Bulawayo became and still are MDC territory, refusing to submit to the blandishments of Mugabe’s regime.

Prior to the 2002 presidential poll, government evicted European Union (EU) observer mission head Pierre Schori and the EU retaliated with sanctions, citing political intimidation and violence. The regime pretended the dispute was over land. The United States followed suit.

But whatever the foregoing, the preceding period had been one of liberal democracy. Judges regularly found in favour of applicants; the police were discouraged by Home Affairs minister Dumiso Dabengwa from incurring costs by unnecessary arrests and prosecutions. A multitude of rights were upheld by the courts under first Chief Justice Enock Dumbutshena and then later Chief Justice Antony Gubbay. A prominent lawyer for instance, had his right not to produce his ID card, if he chose not to, to the police upheld.

But it was short-lived. The state’s quarrel with The Standard had left its mark and the liberal tide began to be swept back.

Gubbay was harassed and hounded out by war veterans during farm invasions which began in 2000. Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa justified the action and more judges were purged from the bench and packing subsequently followed. Joseph Chinotimba, a former Harare municipal police or security officer (Zimind first exposed him over this), commanded land invasions and then lawlessness spread across the country claiming the lives of several farmers and displacing their workers. The most notable victims in the farming sector were David Stevens and the Olds family, mother and son who were gunned down by war veterans.

In 2002 two MDC election agents, Tichaona Chiminya and Talent Mabika were burnt to death when their vehicle was attacked in Buhera. Their assailant, Joseph Mwale, remains free to this day as do the killers of the Olds family.

Meanwhile, South African president Thabo Mbeki was conducting a diplomatic initiative. He sent two judges to Harare on a fact-finding mission. But their report disappeared on their return to Pretoria and only resurfaced last year.

Mbeki was widely seen as beholden to Mugabe.

Meanwhile, the Independent and other papers were covering the rapidly deteriorating situation.

However, the repression persisted. Meldrum’s deportation in 2003 had marked an intensification of Mugabe’s campaign against the press. His chief agent in this was Moyo who presided over the passage in 2002 of Aippa.

Moyo has, however, undergone an epiphany since then and he is now a notable advocate of media freedom as he struggles to climb the greasy pole of political ambition. He has also in the process become a good deal more friendly to the media. He set up a panel of specialists in 2013 to look into issues affecting the media on his rebound as information minister.

Another former Independent employee who needs mention is Joram Nyathi. Nyathi made a signal contribution to the Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) group over the years, but we were all sad to see him act strangely as his loyalties and his views changed.

He eventually left the independent and ended up at the Herald where he is currently deputy editor and has acres of space to practise his preferred patriotic journalism brand.

Wetherell has been the Independent’s deputy editor, editor, and group senior associate editor since the paper’s founding in 1996.