At what point do journalists working in the shadow of a repressive regime give up? There will be a few people asking themselves that question in todayâ€™s Zimbabwe. Another rigged victory for Robert Mugabeâ€™s Zanu-PF party â€“ this time by a landslide that gives him the power to change the constitution and select his successor as president â€“ is disastrous for most Zimbabweans. For objective journalism it is a catastrophe.
If things were not depressing enough, then last week came the state mediaâ€™s triumphalist coverage of Mugabeâ€™s appearance at the Popeâ€™s funeral and that handshake. Just at a time when the independent press had the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission on the ropes over the discrepancy between turnout and party results, Prince Charles changed the news agenda with an absent minded squeeze of tyrannical flesh.
The future is bleak, then, but that has been the case for some time. Over the last 18 months more than 70 journalists have been arrested and four newspapers forced to close. Many foreign correspondents have been deported, and at the time of writing two Sunday Telegraph journalists sit in a Harare jail for entering the country without accreditation. They could be jailed for two years.
Welshman Ncube, a constitutional lawyer and secretary general of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) says Mugabe has been clever with the media. Just as he has allowed parts of the judiciary to remain independent, preserving a semblance of legitimacy, he has tolerated a certain amount of dissent from the press. â€˜You can have your weeklies the Independent and the Standard because they are not seen as influencing the mass of the people,â€™ Ncube says. â€˜But an independent media in the sense of mass circulation daily papers? Forget it, itâ€™s not possible as long as this dictatorshipâ€™s in place.â€™
Mugabeâ€™s media manipulation reached its apogee in the hands of former information minister Professor Jonathan Moyo. â€˜Profâ€™ is hated by journalists for his ruthless remoulding of the countryâ€™s media, and mocked for his comical tirades on State television. Power was what really turned him on, and in January he angered Mugabe by secretly plotting against Zanu-PFâ€™s old guard, and was fired. But the structures and laws he put in place live on, above all the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) that requires newspapers to be licensed and every journalist to be accredited. It also bans the publication of â€˜falsehoodsâ€™, which includes news that is â€˜prejudicial against the Stateâ€™. It was AIPPA that finished off the Daily News, a newspaper that had become a morning ritual for young, urban Zimbabweans.
In most countries the idea that one newspaper can determine a nationâ€™s fate would be melodramatic and unwelcome. But in Zimbabwe this idea was plausible and hopeful. It launched in March 1999and was soon selling over 100,000 copies a day, far more than any other paper and two or three times that of the stateâ€™s flagship, The Herald. Five years later, it was shut down by the government. Since then, most of the 167 journalists have left the country or turned freelance. Only a skeleton online service survives. The Daily News arrived in the same year the MDC was set up and the twoâ€™s fortunes have been closely linked. Without a daily paper willing to give it space, the MDC will always struggle to get its message across. It did succeed in mobilising people during the election campaign but it is in the lean periods between polls that the party really struggles to remain visible and fight off Zanu-PFâ€™s crude misinformation machine.
Propaganda is everywhere in the State media, and can sound bizarre to foreigners, such as the Sunday Newsâ€™ headline â€˜Zanu PF tsunami buries MDC.â€™ An analysis piece in Decemberâ€™s Herald shows the nature of political coverage: â€˜The MDC used the resentment against the escalating prices and shortages of basic commodities as its launch pad. It was thus couched in violence and went on to base its whole campaign on the transient politics of the stomach, the strategy being economic sabotage to ensure the continuation of protest votes.â€™ That chilling phrase â€˜the transient politics of the stomachâ€™ in a country where thousands are starving because of Mugabeâ€™s fast track land resettlement programme, says it all. Meanwhile television schedules are interspersed with scenes of happy peasants hoeing the fields in time to traditional music with lyrics written by government ministers.
In this war on truth, it is journalists at the independent press who must man the trenches. Vincent Kahiya, editor of the weekly Independent, was arrested twice last year, the first time for a story about Mugabeâ€™s holiday to Malaysia. He and his colleagues were jailed for two nights in a cell with thirty others, a blocked toilet, no blankets and no room to sleep. In January, after a year of uncertainty and numerous court visits they were taken off remand as the State had failed to produce a case. Kahiya says it is arrest, imprisonment in terrible conditions, and legal harassment, rather than prosecution, that is the governmentâ€™s tool. â€˜All independent journalists have had to become paralegals,â€™ he says. Many others say this becomes self-censorship.
There is hope. In March a court ordered the Governmentâ€™s media commission to license the Daily News to begin publishing again. Whether the commission honours this, and whether the paper can repeat its past heroics with a staff of fewer than 30 journalists, remains to be seen. The miracle is that despite everything Mugabeâ€™s regime has done, Zimbabweâ€™s independent journalists show no signs of giving up.
This piece appeared in the FT magazine on April 16 2005