Printing presses bombed. Five newspapers banned. Scores of journalists jailed on spurious charges. Editors, reporters, photographers and cameramen beaten, tortured and murdered. Robert Mugabe’s regime in Zimbabwe is one of the most repressive against the press in the world, according to rankings by the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.
Despite Mugabe’s efforts to silence journalists, however, Zimbabwe’s ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis succeeds in grabbing headlines. In the past year it has been one of the most widely covered African stories in the American and British press. Exposés of state torture and the chaos caused by multimillion percent inflation have been reported thanks to brave Zimbabwean journalists, determined foreign correspondents (and their Zimbabwean on-the-ground co-reporters and sources), and courageous lawyers. The Internet, short-wave radio broadcasts, and plain old newsprint all helped spread the Zimbabwean story around the world and, crucially, back into the country.
I worked in Zimbabwe for 23 years, writing for The Guardian and The Economist. For most of that time, other journalists and I could report relatively freely about events. But since 2000, when Mugabe’s presidency was challenged by a new opposition, he has worked to muzzle the press, though he did not mind when journalists concentrated on his seizures of white-owned farms. He wanted the world to view him as the radical African leader who rid his country of white farmers, a vestige of colonialism.
What Mugabe did not want the press to report was how he was using systematic state torture and violence against blacks opposed to his rule. When I uncovered human rights abuses against black Zimbabweans, Mugabe and the state media labeled me a “terrorist.” I was knocked out by one of Mugabe’s so-called “war vets” who hit my head with a rock. In May 2002, I was jailed for two days and charged with publishing a falsehood, a crime that carried a two-year jail sentence.
My lawyer, Beatrice Mtetwa, defended me brilliantly, and I was acquitted. I continued my reporting until May 2003, when I was abducted by state agents and held captive with a hood over my head and forced onto a plane out of the country. At that time, I was the last resident foreign correspondent in Zimbabwe. Since then foreign journalists have had to sneak into the country as tourists and do their reporting undercover. Several have been caught by authorities, including New York Times correspondent Barry Bearak, who spent several days in jail earlier this year. He, too, stood trial and was acquitted thanks, again, to Mtetwa’s legal representation.
Beatrice Mtetwa is one of the outstanding heroes of the battle to keep a shred of the free press alive in Zimbabwe. She has defended several journalists, both foreign and Zimbabwean, as well as many more opposition supporters and ordinary Zimbabweans. She has been beaten twice by police, but this has not deterred her from crusading for the rule of law. Mtetwa has also represented the handful of courageous Zimbabwean journalists who continue to write for the international media, including The Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse, The London Times, and the Telegraph.
Visitors to Zimbabwe are struck by how overwhelming is the pro-Mugabe propaganda spewed forth by state newspapers, television and radio. Many Zimbabweans complain that no matter how hard they try to ignore the constant stream of state diatribes, it still gets to them.
The Mugabe government shut down the country’s most widely circulated newspaper, The Daily News, in 2003, and now the country’s two daily newspapers are both state-owned government mouthpieces that spout virulent rhetoric that media-monitoring groups and the European Union have blamed for whipping up government supporters to carry out the antiopposition violence witnessed this year.
Two fiercely independent weekly newspapers have managed to keep publishing in Zimbabwe. The Independent and The Standard, both owned by Trevor Ncube, publish on Fridays and Sundays, respectively. They directly contradict government propaganda, report on abuses, and uncover corruption scandals. Their journalists have spent many nights in jail, but they remain determined to continue.
“Each week we are never sure which story or what headline is going to land some of us in jail,” said Standard editor Bill Saidi of the constant threat that looms over the papers.
The state holds a monopoly on all television and radio broadcasts. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation competes with the state newspapers for the most shrill pro-government coverage.
Radio news is crucial because it reaches Zimbabwe’s rural areas, where more than 60 percent of the population lives. Although the state controls all AM and FM broadcasts, enterprising Zimbabwean journalists are managing to pierce Mugabe’s “radio curtain.” Three shortwave broadcasts are beamed into Zimbabwe featuring special reports critical of the Mugabe regime:
“Short Wave Radio Africa,” created by Zimbabwean journalist Gerry Jackson, is produced in England and broadcast back into Zimbabwe.
“Studio 7” is produced by the Voice of America in Washington, D.C., with exiled Zimbabwean journalists Ray Choto and Blessing Zulu, and it is relayed back into Zimbabwe.
The “Voice of the People” is produced in the Netherlands and sent back into Zimbabwe.
The shortwave reception for these shows is often scratchy, but these efforts all have devoted listeners. The Mugabe government has jammed the broadcasts, using equipment purchased from China. The rebel shortwave stations get around the jamming by sending news bulletins via text message to thousands of cell phones in Zimbabwe and by sending their stories on the Internet. Zimbabwe has an estimated 100,000 Internet users of a total population of 13 million, a high ratio for Africa.
Several exiled Zimbabwean journalists take advantage of the new technology with online news services:
Former Daily News editor Geoff Nyarota fled Zimbabwe in 2003 after he was arrested six times and received two death threats. Now in exile in the United States, he edits an online paper, The Zimbabwe Times, which features reports by journalists in Zimbabwe.
ZimOnline is produced by Zimbabwean journalists in Johannesburg, South Africa, and highlights breaking stories.
ZWNews is a daily digest of stories about Zimbabwe that is compiled from a wide variety of news sites including British, American, South African, and Zimbabwean newspapers.
Many Zimbabweans access these sites from Internet cafés in Harare and other major cities. Zimbabwe’s secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, have caught on to this, and agents now haunt the cafés to hunt for any antigovernment activity.
Exiled journalist Wilf Mbanga spotted a loophole in Mugabe’s stringent antipress laws that allow the importation of newspapers printed outside the country. He launched The Zimbabwean, which has achieved wide circulation in the country. In the past few months the government has slapped a hefty import duty on the paper, and its delivery truck was firebombed. The Zimbabwean’s articles are also available on its Web site.
Foreign correspondents continue to surreptitiously sneak into the country as tourists. Many use local Zimbabwean journalists to provide reporting from townships and rural areas where they are not able to go unnoticed. Although the Mugabe government tries to control the news, determined journalists—Zimbabwean and foreign alike—have battled to keep getting the story out to the international community and the Zimbabwean people. At a time when people in this country are suffering with hyperinflation, a repressive government, violence against those who oppose Mugabe, who has refused to relinquish power, there is great need for this kind of extraordinary effort.
Andrew Meldrum, a 2008 Nieman Fellow, reported from Zimbabwe for The Guardian and The Economist.