Mugabe's history lesson

The closure of the Daily News in Zimbabwe and president Robert Mugabe’s unceasing attacks on the media are nothing new. Successive governments in Harare have repressed free speech for more than 40 years and got away with it, and that in itself carries a warning for South Africa.

In this country, the ruling alliance, dominated by the ANC, has championed the free press, but recent efforts to reign in the SABC should worry all South Africans, including those in the ruling party.

Across the Limpopo, the Rhodesian government of Ian Smith controlled every word spoken on the country’s radio and television services, but the daily newspapers in Salisbury and Bulawayo were owned by the Argus group in Johannesburg, now Independent Newspapers, owners of The Star and a stable of regional dailies across South Africa.

All decisions at the Rhodesian papers, including the appointment of editors, were made by the Argus board in Salisbury.

When Mugabe took power in April 1980, his information minister, Dr Nathan Shamuyarira, told Argus that unless they sold their shares to the new government, the Zimbabwe newspapers would be nationalised.

In 1982, Nigeria, then under military rule, gave Mugabe the money for the purchase but the real tragedy was that hardly a murmur was raised around the world as the government in Harare took control of the papers, fired the editors and turned the media into a propaganda machine. In Britain, the US, Australia and South Africa, politicians and even journalists raised little ire over the move and the Argus group did not use its local papers to denounce the action.

Robert Mandebvu, a former diplomat, appointed by Mugabe to oversee the state media, dressed up the change in words similar to those currently being used in some quarters to justify editorial control at the SABC.

‘We will not interfere with the right of the press to report the truth,” Mandebvu said, ‘but journalists will also have to remember that they are citizens of the country and should be wary of issues that may discredit or embarrass the government.”

Some Zimbabwean journalists were taken in by the government’s promise not to muzzle the press.
At the time the press was nationalised, Philemon Nandu, president of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, said that there was little likelihood that the government would interfere, and that it was nonsense to suggest that Mugabe would try to muzzle the press.

A year later, Mugabe moved his notorious Fifth Brigade into Matabeleland, where they allegedly murdered between 10 000 and 40 000 supporters of the opposition. The media, now firmly under state control, stayed silent.

At election time, the papers refused to accept political advertising from opposition candidates and froze them out of the editorial columns. Several of the current leaders in the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) were, at that time, members of Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party and made no effort to champion press freedom. Today, they are paying for their silence.

In Harare, the three non-government weeklies were the only independent voice until 1999, when Geoff Nyarota launched the Daily News.

It took the Zimbabwe government four years to kill off the new paper but, unlike 1982, the world has been quick to condemn the action. Sadly the current South African government’s response has been little different from that of PW Botha, which made no comment when Mugabe took over the Argus shares.

South Africa enjoys a robust private media in print, radio and television and the state has made no effort to control opinion. On the contrary, local and foreign companies are welcome to set up fresh outlets and, ironically, it is a Nigerian firm that is launching this country’s first new national daily in 30 years.

Even so, South Africans must remain vigilant, especially in defending the freedom and integrity of the SABC.

I am a fan of the way the ANC has governed this nation and, since 1994, South Africa has enjoyed more freedom than any other country in the history of the continent. But who is to say which party will be in power in 10 or 20 years time? Which is why the ANC itself must be wary of setting any precedent that interferes with free speech.

We have only to look across the border to see the danger.

Geoff Hill, South African-born journalist and author, is the southern African correspondent for the Washington Times. His book, ‘Battle for Zimbabwe - The Final Countdown” (Zebra/New Holland) went on sale in South Africa in late October and was launched in London on 20th November.

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