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 its editor Trevor Ncube and a number of senior staff members, the first edition of the Zimbabwe Independent rolled off the printing press.
By Dumisani Muleya
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 shifted just before the turn of the millennium.
Many changes were also looming on the horizon in the post-Cold War era — which brought a wave of deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation in hitherto command economies like Zimbabwe — and the arrival of the 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 the nature of journalism and its ethics.
Publishing is now in the hands of citizens, while digital journalism and social media encourage new forms of interactive and real-time reporting.
Our media ecosystem and the attendant terrain has now become a chaotic landscape evolving at a fast and furious pace.
Professional journalists now have to share their sphere with online hacks, tweeters, Facebook enthusiasts, bloggers, citizen journalists, and social media users in general.
Due to technological advances and innovation in the digital space, 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 far-reaching disruptions and accelerated changes in concomitant 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, downsizing and reducing costs.
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, commercial interference and restrictions of proprietors embedded in crony capitalism, but also reshaped 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; investigating corruption and contributing to democratic progress. Essentially, the media is central to country’s development agenda.
In that connection, the Independent has been playing its part by providing a systematic and reflective approach to coverage of stories and issues, acting as a public watchdog in relation to governance, accountability and transparency imperatives.
That is over and above scrutinising how power is exercised, public resources are distributed and markets work.
With deception ubiquitous in this era of rotten and toxic politics which confront us and in the dynamic digital environment, independent and progressive journalism is critical to separate chaff from wheat, while shedding light in dark corners of society.
In that regard, the Independent wrote many great stories and propelled individual journalists’ careers, the institution and profession to new heights.
It also offered opportunities for media and other graduates who are now editors, PR managers and enterpreneurs as well as marketers and academics in and out of the country.
The Independent project was the brainchild of Clive Murphy, Clive Wilson and Ncube. Its arrival in the market marked the start of a unique publishing enterprise which, over the next two decades, would involve some of Zimbabwe’s best journalists and other professionals, yielding a rich harvest of awards.
The paper, which came at a critical juncture in Zimbabwe’s history, was also to become one of the most hard-hitting, intensely inquisitive and fearless 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, in a one-man race, with over 92% of the vote in the 1996 presidential election.
Prior to that, he had been stopped in his tracks by the late Edgar Tekere’s opposition Zum, civil society and academics such as Masipula Sithole (also late), Jonathan Moyo, John Makumbe (late) and Ibbo Mandaza, among others, from establishing a de jure one-party state he had always wanted from 1980.
The ruling Zanu PF, which wanted a socialist one-party state and, as it now transpires, to have a North Korean-style president-for-life, had also won an overwhelming majority in parliament.
In the meantime, the country was at crossroads economically after launching Zimbabwe’s Economic Structural Adjustment Programme (Esap) in 1991. 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, widening budget deficits, erratic growth, inflation and unemployment.
So it turned to the IMF, hence Esap. The liberalisation and reform process was supposed to lead to a new era of modernised, competitive and export-led industrialisation and growth.
However, due to a combination of factors, including lack of political will, the Washington Consensus-based experiment largely failed.
So having an independent, bold and investigative media was even more important at that point.
Society needed discerning 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.
In other words, journalists who understood that working in the media must go beyond simply earning a salary and making profits for proprietors.
Those who realised, 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 a climacteric in the country’s post-independence era; certainly at the right time. It went on to effectively save independent journalism in Zimbabwe, unpacking the political economy and dissecting issues, while breaking many award-winning stories through quality and investigative reporting.
While holding those in powerful positions accountable and exposing corruption, the Independent, through its trademark cutting-edge journalism and analyses from the country’s literati, including the likes of Mandaza, Moyo, Kempton Makamure (late), Welshman Ncube, Tony Hawkins, Lovemore Madhuku, John Robertson, Themba Dlodlo, Eric Bloch (late), Makumbe, Geoff Feltoe and Sithole, among others, also offered a refreshing brand of reportage and commentary on politics, economics and financial markets.
Later a younger generation of writers such as Tendai Biti, Pedzisai Ruhanya, Alex Magaisa, Qhubani Moyo, Chris Mhike, Ritesh Anand, Brett Chulu and Jethro Mpofu, among others, also advanced new ideas and perspectives on issues through the Independent.
Mugabe, used to sycophantic and personality cult-reinforcing reporting until papers like the Independent disrupted that, systematically came under close scrutiny.
Penetrating questions were to be asked, for instance 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 insightfully reported, deconstructed and interpreted. From 2000 and through the turbulent constitutional reform process, land invasions, the hyperinflation era and economic meltdown, disputed elections and electoral theft characterised by political intimidation, violence and murder, and the indigenisation programme, Mugabe came under increased microscopic scrutiny.
Resultantly, it later became clear he was more of a liberation hero-turned-villain than anything else. Myths about him had been debunked and 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 in many ways Zimbabwe’s and the Independent has been relentlessly running that narrative.
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 myths, his rhetoric and promises rather than substance or evidence — he wanted freedom, social justice and equal opportunity.
Mugabe initially seemed convincing 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 which bred 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 indeed 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 also described how a darker picture of Mugabe emerged early after Independence, with the savage repression of Zapu and its leader Joshua Nkomo’s supporters in the south-western region of the country, liquidation of political opponents through deadly purges, corruption and the disastrous intervention in the Congo War, all worsened by his incompetence, unquenchable lust for power and trappings of office.
Finding himself a beleaguered leader in the face of growing social discontent and unrest after 2000, Mugabe resorted to desperate measures — seizing white-owned farms, grabbing companies, increasing his imperial presidential powers, arresting journalists and muzzling the media, while brutally crushing the opposition.
This, compounded by his ineptitude and maladministration, ruined the economy and impoverished the nation.
Chan’s narrative depicted the emergence of a ruthless and single-minded despot driven by self-aggrandisement and clinging to power at all costs. He showed how the triumphant nationalist leader who initially reconciled all in the new multiracial Zimbabwe in 1980 later degenerated into a petty tyrant consumed by hubris and self-righteousness, eventually 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, grabbed the narrative and vividly chronicled these events and developments — capturing history in motion in service of the country’s development and democratic agenda.
It was without a doubt 20 years of speaking truth to power for the Independent.