News media at heart of Zimbabwe's struggle

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.

The political agreement that established the power-sharing government last year stipulates that “the public and private media refrain from using abusive language that may incite hostility, political intolerance and ethnic hatred or that unfairly undermines political parties and other organizations.”

That objective remains a long way off, particularly as the state-owned press persists in hurling abuse at MDC leaders and civic bodies. The state media has helped to keep Zimbabwe a deeply polarized society.

This week Unesco hosted a meeting of editors in Harare from both the private and public media. That included editors in exile who are wary of the state’s response to their return.
Officially the government wants externally-based journalists to return and register with the ZMC. But its media, backed by army generals, continues to denounce “pirate” radio stations.

National Army Commander, Lt-Gen. Philip Sibanda, told an army seminar last week that foreign-based radio stations beaming into Zimbabwe were "at war" with the state and warned his soldiers to remain on guard against such things.

"Our country is undergoing an asymmetric type of war where all means are used to achieve set objectives by our detractors,” he said. “Zimbabweans must be aware and clearly understand that war is not only about guns and bullets.”

The "pirate" radio stations that the army commander rails against, are simply radio stations based outside Zimbabwe who beam back into the country. They are forced to do so because the Zimbabwe government does not allow any independent broadcasters to operate. So the stations set up shop outside Zimbabwe and beam their newscasts back into the country on shortwave. Their independent and critical reports have become notably popular with Zimbabweans and this enrages the Mugabe government, which paints the external stations as criminals.

Unesco failed to coax a statement from the Minister of Media and Information, Webster Shamu, assuring returning exiles that they had nothing to fear by attending the meeting and related workshops. “What must stop,” Shamu said recently, “is the continuing situation where some parties ... continue to aid and abet illegal, extraterritorial pirate broadcasts which violate our sovereignty in the name of media freedoms.” Former editor of the Daily News, Geoff Nyarota who lives in the United States, has said he would test the water by returning for the Unesco meeting. But Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean, which publishes abroad but circulates in Zimbabwe, says he won’t return home in the absence of concrete assurances.

“My own position is that unless and until we get an unequivocal undertaking from the Zimbabwe government that we will not be detained for whatever reason, I am not prepared to take the risk of going to Zimbabwe,” he said.

While the media debate intensifies, ordinary Zimbabweans want access to news about events in their own country.

“I just want to know what’s happening,” said Freddy Tafara, who lives in a nearby township and like so many of his neighbors gets his news from The Zimbabwean which is cheap if not always cheerful. “I will happily pay $1 for a newspaper if it just tells me the truth,” he said.