Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

When spies spoil news media

Revelations in Zimbabwe about spy shenanigans in the privately owned press there revive distant memories of South African equivalents — and point to what’s needed for the future.

An article in the Zimbabwe Independent last week disclosed that the country’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) seems to have secretly taken control of three papers — the Daily Mirror, Weekly Mirror and Financial Gazette.

The report said the CIO has even been covering most of the costs of the loss-making Mirror.

If true, this suggests that a different strategy is at work in Zimbabwe than the better-known and draconian style of former information ministry thug Jonathan Moyo. The CIO approach looks more like a little brother running a sinister operation.

Whether the claimed control by the CIO amounts to an alternative approach — reflecting sectarian interests of one state bureaucracy (spooks) versus another (Stalinists in the information ministry) — is not yet clear. Either way, whether the CIO is complementing or competing with other factions in the ruling party, there are still unpleasant echoes of apartheid-era manoeuvres in the Zimbabwean case.

In the South African situation, the Pretoria government was infamous in the 1970s for its violent reactions to press criticism. Media-bullying tactics back then ranged from suffocating legal straitjackets to beatings and bannings.

Yet there was also a secret sister strategy on the go — covert efforts to neutralise the private media. Thus, while prime goon John Vorster was hammering the media in the crudest of terms, his heir apparent Connie Mulder worked on a more subtle front. The actions of the first control freak created a vacuum; those of the second aimed to fill it in a very particular way. In tandem, the two were pretty effective for a period.

Mulder’s track, as the ”Information Scandal” subsequently revealed, spared no expense in setting up or buying newspapers around the world — even in Washington, DC. Fortunes in taxpayers’ money were spent to buy influence with journalists around the world.

The regime’s rationale was, presumably, that it’s not enough to wipe out the strongest opposition newspapers; you also need a supportive press that maintains a fiction of independence.

In Zimbabwe’s case, it seems the CIO similarly thought it insufficient that the top-selling Daily News and later the Tribune were banned. It deemed it necessary also to infiltrate the remaining independent publications.

Such ”stealth” strategies in South Africa came to an end when Mulder’s manipulation was discredited by dubious diversions of funds. This, in turn, gave impetus to a leaking of the conspiracy, probably engineered by a rival ruling-party faction comprising militarists linked to PW Botha.

The saga toppled Mulder, with Vorster falling soon after, and Botha’s team hastily assumed hegemony. Although the new ”securocrats” eased off the bribery and acquisition strategy, they went on to combine even more vicious repression against the press with a continued planting of spies in the newsroom.

Whether Zimbabwe’s case reveals similar interfactional conflict within that country’s state remains to be seen. But it is not insignificant that the CIO is now reported to have its eyes even on The Voice, party newspaper of the ruling Zanu-PF. For that matter, the Mirror papers themselves had never been a major thorn in the side of the government.

Accordingly, this may suggest that CIO involvement in these papers is not to make them pro-government (which they already are), but instead to use them for factional purposes within the ruling group.

Somewhat different is the story of the Financial Gazette. The paper’s erstwhile editor-in-chief Francis Mdlongwa, now heading up the Sol Plaatje Media Leadership Institute at Rhodes University, tells how his former paper lost its independence.

Mdlongwa recounts how in 2002 the paper’s proprietor, Elias Rusike, decided to sell because of what he said was an increasingly hostile and risky Zimbabwean market.

The Commercial Bank of Zimbabwe (CBZ) loaned the money to Octodew, a consortium led by Mdlongwa, and Rusike duly sold. The CEO of the CNZ at the time was one Gideon Gono, now the Governor of the Zimbabwean Reserve Bank.

It did not take long before Gono told Mdlongwa to tone down his criticism of the president, especially after the editor wrote a highly critical column that urged Zimbabweans to vote Mugabe out in the March 2002 election. When Mdlongwa refused, his consortium came under pressure to repay the loan.

Two new partners were then introduced to the company on the pretext of having sufficient funds to reduce the interest payable to the bank. According to Mdlongwa, the pair were unknowns, despite each being able to each mobilise about Z$15-million apiece to secure stakes and thence assuming directorships.

Bit by bit, the newcomers put the pressure on, eventually squeezing the original players out of the company altogether. When Mdlongwa then resigned as editor rather than compromise his editorial independence, the paper began to lose its critical edge.

Thus was a group of credible entrepreneurs sidelined, and politically driven forces installed at the controls. One year later, the Financial Gazette was being edited by a former public-relations manager from Gono’s CBZ office.

The current allegations that the Financial Gazette is now 100% CIO-owned can only dent the appeal and integrity of this once-respected publication even further — reducing it to the status of those ineffectual state-run rags, the Herald and the Chronicle.

There is an irony in all this, in that for any intelligence operation, a free flow of trustworthy information should surely be its first prize. Directly intervening in a medium inevitably inhibits and discredits the output, not to mention alienating anonymous sources who might otherwise come forward with significant information.

Disinformation becomes the staple diet in such cases, and puts journalists at personal risk. Ask the CIA, whose cavalier use of journalists as agents over the years has limited the scope for United States press people to report abroad without hindrance or suspicion.

In the interests of the public and the media, and indeed even also in the information-gathering interests of a country’s spies, it’s a bad idea to mix the forces of espionage and the fourth estate.

Compromising the media in this way rebounded in apartheid South Africa. It ill-serves US society. Now, it is ricocheting in Zimbabwe.

If democratic South Africa is to steer clear of the same situation, then our country’s spies must eschew secretive and co-optive tactics regarding journalism. Take note, Minister of Intelligence Ronnie Kasrils; now is a very good time to make a public pledge that your staff will keep their hands off the South African media.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories


If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Subscribers only

Zondo commission: 10 unanswered questions

Zuma went to jail rather than testify. Some who did told blatant lies. Who decided Cabinet appointments and how much money was carried out of Saxonwold?

Local elections: Water tops the agenda in Limpopo’s dry villages

People in the Fetakgomo Tubatse local municipality, who have to collect water from Motse River, are backing independent candidates because they’re tired of parties’ election promises

More top stories

Most climate science is written by white men

In deciding how the world responds to the climate crisis, policymakers rely on research that tends to be written predominantly by men in the Global North

Zondo commission: 10 unanswered questions

Zuma went to jail rather than testify. Some who did told blatant lies. Who decided Cabinet appointments and how much money was carried out of Saxonwold?

Nigeria’s palm wine tappers face stiff competition

Large companies such as International Breweries and Nigerian Breweries are vying for the population’s drinking money

Covid-19 border closures hit Zimbabwe’s women traders hard

The past 18 months have been tough for women cross-border traders, who saw their income vanish when borders closed

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…