Zim security seeks to control private media

Zimbabwe’s state security agency, the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), is seeking to emulate South Africa’s apartheid-era information blitz by covertly taking over newspapers hitherto seen as independent of state control, the Zimbabwe Independent reported on Friday.

Zimbabwe’s media tyranny has been escalating in recent years in tandem with rising political repression. Dozens of journalists have been arrested, while foreign correspondents have been deported under draconian media laws.

As state-owned media lose their credibility, the increasingly unpopular Zimbabwean government sees control of the independent press as a more viable route to hold sway over a restive population.

Information obtained from high-level intelligence sources shows the CIO in 2002 started manoeuvres to muscle into the Financial Gazette as well as the Mirror Newspapers Group’s two titles, the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror, which it now controls. Billions of taxpayers’ funds were poured into the project.

The CIO tried and failed to buy into The Tribune and has set its sights on the ruling Zanu-PF’s mouthpiece, The Voice.

“The CIO controls those three newspapers [the Financial Gazette and the Mirror group titles],” an intelligence source said this week. “They control a large stake, if not 100% of the Financial Gazette, and 70% of the Mirror group. Ibbo Mandaza [Mirror chief executive and editor-in-chief] owns 30%.”

Mandaza would not comment, saying: “Phone me later, I’m on another line.”

It is thought the CIO copied its strategy of owning newspapers through shelf companies or as a silent shareholder from Angola, where the largest circulating daily is owned by the intelligence service.

South Africa’s apartheid intelligence machinery in the 1970s was involved in setting up newspapers and covertly occupying media space in what became known as the Muldergate or Infogate scandal. Connie Mulder was minister of information at the time.

Taking charge at the Mirror group

CIO director general Happyton Bonyongwe is said to have been the chief engineer of the media project when current Minister of Labour Nicholas Goche was still in the state security portfolio. Repeated efforts to get comment from Bonyongwe failed on Thursday.

It is understood the CIO seconded intelligence officers to the Mirror group to reorganise the media house. Officers in Bonyongwe’s office—including Emmanuel Gumbo, who was attached to the CIO external branch—are now working on the project.

Sources said Gumbo recruited three staff members of the now-defunct information and publicity department, Georgina Sabawo, Chris Murimbi and Joseph Neuso, to assist in the enterprise.

It is also said that the CIO has deployed its own media specialist, Alexander Kanengoni—a former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings head of TV services—as deputy editor-in-chief of the Mirror papers.

Since the departure of former editor Innocent Sithole, the Mirror newspapers have had only deputy editors, Tichaona Chifamba (Daily Mirror) and Ruzvidzo Mupfudza (Sunday Mirror), who report to Kanengoni.

Sources said the covert media operation was revealed through an audit by CIO assistant director for administration Memory Chasakara, who was subsequently promoted to hush her up.

Chasakara is understood to have complained after discovering the CIO was paying up to 83% of the Mirror group’s operating costs. She was then kicked upstairs.

The sources also said the CIO tried in vain to buy into the closed Tribune newspaper. Bonyongwe is said to be anxious to add The Voice to his stable.

According to sources, the CIO was instrumental in the closure in 2003 of the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe’s (ANZ) Daily News and Daily News on Sunday.

The intelligence service allegedly influenced the recent decision by the Media and Information Commission (MIC), led by government media columnist Tafataona Mahoso, to refuse to reopen the ANZ, whose flagship Daily News was twice bombed during its short life between 1999 and 2003.

The MIC also recently denied the Tribune an operating licence.

Gaining control of the Gazette

The CIO is understood to have staged a dramatic boardroom coup in 2002 against the Octadew consortium, which was headed by former Financial Gazette editor-in-chief Francis Mdlongwa.

Octadew comprised Mdlongwa along with Harare-based medical doctors and businessmen Sylvester Saburi and Solomon Mthethwa. The group initially bought the paper from Elias Rusike’s Hamba Investments Holdings.

The agreement of sale was signed on October 1 2002 after both parties had agreed on an evaluation of $200-million by the Financial Gazette‘s financial advisers as the price tag.

Rusike had sold the paper to Octadew on the strict understanding that the new owners would maintain an “editorial policy that is independent of any government, political party, and/or big business”.

The editorial charter was incorporated in the agreement of sale. However, differences later emerged between Octadew and then Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe (now trading as Jewel Bank) chief executive Gideon Gono, who was said to have secured equity by putting the consortium under financial pressure.

Gono had financial leverage because Octadew had borrowed the $200-million from his bank to finance the deal. In 2002, Gono said he did not own the Financial Gazette because he had only been a “financial adviser” in the deal.

The CIO allegedly had no difficulty moving into the Mirror group because it owed the Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe a large sum of money after failing to attract advertisers.

Sources said Gono forced the Financial Gazette to create the position of financial director to accommodate his appointee, Blazio Tafireyi—even though there was a financial manager, Albert Mushonga, already in place.

Tafireyi has since left the paper. It is widely thought this was done to ensure the real owners of the paper got to know the financial state of affairs at their new company.

“After Octadew paid Rusike $200-million through Hamba Investments, it became clear something was wrong with the deal,” a source said. “All sorts of problems emerged and it inevitably collapsed after a short period. A boardroom coup had been staged.”

In a statement issued on November 6 2002, Octadew said the deal had broken down due to “differences centring on the implementation of the newspapers’ broad vision and operation issues”.

After the deal failed, Octadew’s owners went to South Africa in a last-ditch effort to secure funds from exiled tycoon Strive Masiyiwa, who owns cellphone company Econet. Octadew had failed to find alternative funding in Zimbabwe due to the credit crunch in the market.

Masiyiwa refused to help out.

“Masiyiwa asked what was in the deal for him,” a source said. “He was also surprised how Octadew wanted him to fund a closed deal which could not be opened by any amount of capital outlay. He told Octadew he couldn’t give them money because, in any case, he wasn’t a bank.”

When options ran out for Octadew, Rusike—who wanted the paper bought by independent owners—could not find a white knight to salvage the Financial Gazette or sufficient shark repellent to deal with the CIO, which was circling behind the scenes.

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