In Zimbabwe, a free press is a luxury

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

HARARE, Zimbabwe - Geoff Nyarota's newspaper has been bombed twice this year.

The marble and concrete entrance to the 10-story building that houses it on a busy downtown Harare street still bears scars from the April 22 banger, a homemade device tossed from a passing car.

Three months earlier, an armed commando-style team held a guard at gunpoint and blew up the newspaper's presses with four well-placed bombs.

This is a country where reporters and photographers for newspapers that don't toe the government's line have been beaten, detained, harassed and threatened.

Still, Nyarota's Daily News, Zimbabwe's only independent daily, stays on the case. Along with some independent weeklies, it provides Zimbabwe's only alternative voice since President Robert Mugabe shut down independent radio and television late last year.

"In the U.S., newspapers are taken for granted, but not here," says Nyarota, a graying and portly grandfather, who seems remarkably calm for a man who has faced down mobs of Mugabe supporters. "Here the journalist must justify his quest for information (from the government) and even then the information may not be provided."

Quite the contrary, the quest might get you killed or tortured. Just ask two other independent Zimbabwean journalists, Ray Choto, chief reporter for the weekly Standard, and his editor Mark Chavundunka. They were arrested in late 1999 and tortured with clubs, water and electric prods by soldiers seeking to know the sources of a story about an attempted coup.

In America, such hard-hitting reporting would win awards and maybe a book contract. In Zimbabwe, it is more likely to win you a holiday in government torture chambers.

Zimbabwe's story is particularly sad because the country has had so much going for it. A decade before apartheid fell, Zimbabwe's strong courts and high literacy rate were making it an encouraging model to South Africa for how a racially segregated, neo-colonial society could transform itself to majority rule.

It would be a gross understatement to say that Mugabe has deeply disappointed those of us who hoped he would stick to democratic principles. The last time I visited here this was Rhodesia, a breakaway British colony in its last years of white-minority rule. Twenty-five years later, I return to find that, after years of Mugabe's largely conciliatory and pragmatic world-class leadership by third-world standards, he's behaving like a world-class tyrant.

The difference came a couple of years ago when, after two decades in office, Mugabe and his ruling ZANU-PF party appeared to have lost majority support, especially in urban areas. Now he faces a real chance of losing next year's elections. As a leader of the popular new Movement for Democratic Change told me, "This time he won't even be able to steal enough votes to win."

As a result, Mugabe is behaving the way politicians in trouble typically do: He blames the media. Unlike most, he's using a big hammer of censorship and intimidation.

Under his minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, a scholar and former Mugabe critic, independent radio and television have been shut down and the independent press has been harassed by both officials and the same "war vets" (including more than a few paid, non-veteran thugs) who have become famous by attacking and killing white farmers.

Government spokesmen announce press conferences without telling anyone but the state-run media, just to guarantee a friendly audience. On June 6, a new weekly TV talk show was banned after only one broadcast because some callers criticized "The Headmaster," one of Mugabe's growing list of nicknames.

Most foreign correspondents have been expelled, and it is increasingly hard for new ones to get media visas or accreditation. I gained a few days' entry not as a journalist, but as a "consultant," a member of a fact-finding delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based organization of which I am a board member.

Founded by journalists, CPJ investigates and actively opposes abuses of press freedoms around the world. Last year, CPJ looked into more than 600 complaints worldwide. Mugabe's Zimbabwe has given us more than 30 serious complaints to investigate since the end of 1999.

As a way of distracting world attention, Mugabe's media crackdown has a diabolical cleverness to it. In today's post-Cold War world, television pictures drive foreign policy. Americans, in particular, do not respond to crises in remote places these days unless they see it on television. Famine in Somalia, where TV was allowed, gets a big response. Slave markets in the war-torn Sudan, where TV is not allowed, does not.

Zimbabwe's best resource, as in any democracy, is its people. Besides its feisty newspapers, the country has strong legal institutions and one of the highest literacy rates on the continent. It also has many courageous people. Some of them are journalists. They make me proud to be in the same profession.

Ray Choto, mentioned above, lectured in Juneau earlier this year. Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. (C) 2001, the Chicago Tribune.



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