When Zimbabwe’s best selling Daily News was forced to close by repressive media legislation two years ago, critical voices disappeared from the country’s mass media, and independent reporters fled abroad. Now an increasing number of journalists are getting their own back from these shores.
Mdudzi Mathuthu is a former Daily News reporter who runs NewZimbabwe.com from a flat in Cardiff. “I was arrested five times and attacked twice,” he says. “I realised I could die a hero or run away a coward so I chose the latter.” He says the website, which receives 175,000 hits a day, aims to promote “national discourse”, something which is impossible to do back home. Most of the readers are Zimbabwean office workers, but about a third are UK-based. The style is colourful and populist. “My inspiration is Piers Morgan. We like to have a mix – everything from hard news about asylum seekers and politics, to squeezing in something about Kylie’s bottom,” he says.
The newest kid on the block is the Zimbabwean, a weekly paper produced in the UK, which is aimed mainly at Zimbabweans here, but also imported into Zimbabwe. Its editor, Wilf Mbanga, is the former managing director of the Daily News, and the Zimbabwean has followed its anti-establishment example. “When we launched, my face was splashed all over the [state-owned daily] Herald saying I’ve abused journalism,” Mbanga recalls. “But I’m grateful vapor pak electronic cigarettes for the publicity it gave us,” he laughs.
Not everyone wants publicity. One online news editor based in the UK asks for his website not to be featured: “Whenever we get mentioned in the press here our associates in Zimbabwe get put in awkward situations.”
Even here, Zimbabwean journalists do not feel safe. The grande dame of Zimbabwean journalists in the UK is Gerry Jackson. A former rock DJ on Zimbabwean state radio – she was sacked for interviewing victims of police brutality live on air – she moved to London and in December 2001 set up SW Radio Africa from a secret location. “We try to provide accurate information to counteract government propaganda, some of which verges on hatespeak. During the recent crackdown on urban dwellers, the police chief described people living in these areas as cockroaches and trash.”
The station used to broadcast on short wave, hence the name, but this year Zimbabwe’s government jammed its signal, with technical help from the Chinese. It is now on medium wave, which confines its audience to the southern half of the country and exiles in Botswana and South Africa. But unlike the internet and newspapers, radio can at least reach rural areas, she says.
· SW Radio Africa broadcasts at 5am to 7am Zimbabwe time on 1197kHz. UK listeners can hear it on the internet at swradioafrica.com from 5pm to 7pm