How the press is challenging Zimbabwe's govt

The mounted head of a buffalo stared down at me beside the smoky, oak-panelled bar of the New Ambassador hotel. About a hundred journalists were crammed in, sitting or standing, for a debate of noise and passion with interludes of loud hilarity. A government minister sat at the bar and joined in, while another listened as he leaned on a pool table.

It wasn’t a scene I had expected in Zimbabwe, where it’s often assumed that President Robert Mugabe has a stranglehold on the media with thought police in every room.
After all, numerous journalists have been intimidated or jailed, and the only daily newspaper, the Herald, is little more than a compilation of Zanu-PF press releases.

On a Tuesday night in a 1950s hotel in Harare, however, the Zimbabwe Press Club was speaking its mind. It had invited Eric Matinenga, a minister in the unity government, to debate the country’s new constitution with Dr Lovemore Madhuku, a human rights lawyer and chairperson of the national constitutional assembly.

Madhuku went first, wearing a blazer and striped shirt, clapping his hands and speaking with fire and brimstone. He declared: “The process is being done in a very arrogant way. I don’t think our politicians are more qualified to write our Constitution than our citizens. When we say we want a people-driven process, we mean a body that does not answer daily to the government of the day.”

He finished to riotous applause and cheers. Then it was the turn of Matinenga, a member of prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change. He struck a conciliatory note: “We do not agree with Dr Madhuku but we respect and defend his right to say it.”

Then he tried to reassure the assembled throng: “When you come to Constitution making, it’s not about the parties, it’s about the people of Zimbabwe.”

There were some feisty questions from the floor, some in English, some in Shona, and more laughter. One participant said bluntly: “We want a government of our own choice. If you dilly-dally with the process, you dilly-dally with the people.”

I felt at home in the journalistic tribe and encouraged by the apparent fearlessness with which they expressed their opinions. But I could see something more ominous on the wall. There were six framed photographs of journalists who were no longer alive and a poster that asked: “What happened to Edward Chikomba?”

Chikomba was a cameraman found beaten to death on a roadside near Harare two years ago. It was unclear whether his “crime” was to have sympathies for the MDC or to have smuggled news footage out of the country.

On another day I sat in the ordered chaos of the office of Vincent Kahiya, the editor of the Zimbabwe Independent. The paper lives up to its name and a recent editorial talked openly of “Mugabe’s disastrous policy failures”. It also, incidentally, referred to “the duplicity of MDC leaders”.

But taking a stand comes at a price. Kahiya and his news editor were recently arrested and spent a night freezing in police cells with no bedding or food, bad lighting, dirty floors and a broken sewage system. “You ask yourself, ‘Why am I here?” Kahiya said. “‘What have I done to be here?’”

He continued: “The whole episode is a clear admission by the unity government of what it thinks about media freedom in this country. The media is still regarded as a nuisance unless it sings Mugabe’s praises. As a journalist here you operate with an axe over your head and you never know when it’s going to fall and which story they’re going to pick on, because there are so many media laws they can choose from.”

Yet the status quo is about to be tested. Just along the corridor, past reporters at their computers, Barnabas Thondhlana, one of Zimbabwe’s leading newspapermen, is planning to launch a new daily independent. He has declared that NewsDay will pull no punches on either side.

“We will praise the government of the day when it has done something good,” he told me. “We will acknowledge any good Robert Mugabe has done. We will throw brickbats at him when he’s fucked up. We will do the same for Morgan Tsvangirai.”

Thondhlana was at the country’s last independent daily, the Daily News, in 2003 when armed police stormed the office, ordered journalists out and padlocked the door. He looks with envy on the freedom of the press in other countries. He added: “If the British politicians’ expenses scandal had happened in Zimbabwe, the paper would have been closed down, the reporter’s head would have been on the line and someone would be in jail right now.”

Yet, just as firefighters sign up to fight fires and soldiers sign up to go to war, so journalists thrive on a “busy patch”. Vincent Kahiya has had no shortage of stories in recent years to fill the Zimbabwe Independent. He mused: “It’s a unique opportunity for a journalist to be in this environment. I once spent a month in Denmark on secondment and there isn’t any news. People write about trees, or the trains being late.” -

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