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News media at heart of Zimbabwe's struggle

State pumps shrill propaganda while private papers try to start operations.

A Zimbabwean reads a copy of the state-controlled Herald newspaper in the capital Harare, April 4, 2008. The Herald and other state media maintain a persistent barrage of shrill propaganda promoting President Robert Mugabe and demonizing the opposition. (Mike Hutchings/Reuters)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Starved of news, Zimbabweans may soon get a daily newspaper that for the first time in six years is not owned by the state and does not portray President Robert Mugabe as a hero.

Since the Mugabe government banned the privately-owned Daily News in 2003, readers across the country have been treated to a daily diet of government vitriol aimed mostly at Movement for Democratic Change leader Morgan Tsvangirai and his civic allies.

The news media is at the heart of the struggle to loosen the Mugabe government's stranglehold on the country and to allow Zimbabwe to achieve a functioning democracy.

Government-owned papers and the country’s state-owned radio and television stations act as cheerleaders for the president. Their fawning approach to his disastrous policies has seen readership plummet leaving a door open to independent competitors.

The state press also acts as an attack dog against the opposition. The tempo of abuse from the state media has been stepped up since Mugabe was obliged by regional leaders to form a government of national unity with Tsvangirai a year ago, following Mugabe’s defeat in the first round of presidential elections.

The state-controlled order will be challenged by the new newspaper, NewsDay, which is set to launch on Nov. 1. Its publisher, Trevor Ncube, already owns two weekly newspapers, the Zimbabwe Independent and Standard, and one of South Africa's leading weekly newspapers, the Mail & Guardian.

“NewsDay is being published at a time when Zimbabwe is emerging from almost a decade of political strife, economic collapse and social distress,” Ncube said recently. “NewsDay’s birth in part represents the hope of a tortured nation and the paper will provide leadership as the country normalizes.”

The new paper faces at least one hurdle along the way. It must be approved by the state licensing body, the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC), which will determine whether the new paper, and several others lining up in the starting blocks, can proceed to publish.

The ZMC is the successor to the notorious Media and Information Commission which banned the Daily News and held independent newspapers in thrall.

But given the recent selection by parliament of commissioners inclined towards a free press, the new body is unlikely to follow in the footsteps of its pro-Mugabe predecessor.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/zimbabwe/091007/news-media-at-heart-zimbabwes-struggle-democracy