'I have more freedom here than in Iraq'

With the ban on the BBC, reporting from Zimbabwe is at best problematic. In an election week diary, Sky's David Chater explains how he went about it
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The Independent Online

Monday

Monday

"Zanu-PF blasts Sky News", reads the banner headline on the front page of The Herald. The government was launching a counter-attack against our report that opposition supporters in Matabeleland were being denied supplies of maize to force them to vote for the ruling party.

The package, screened on Easter Sunday, was based on an interview with the Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, Pius Ncube. He backed up his claim by bringing a selection of his parishioners to describe at first hand how they'd been turned away by Zanu-PF officials from food stores because they were known members of the Movement for Democratic Change.

The secretary for information and publicity, Dr Nathan Shamuyarira, called a press conference to expose what he called "Sky News lies'', demanding concrete proof of the allegations and labelling the story as "completely unsubstantiated and untrue''. He went on to describe the Archbishop of Bulawayo as "a mad inveterate liar'' and well-known rabid opponent of the government.

The Sky News team, producer Ben de Pear and cameraman Garwen McLeckie were old Africa hands and had long experience of coping with the problems of broadcasting from Zimbabwe. We light-heartedly talked the night before about the possible repercussions of our report - a midnight knock at the door, a prison cell or deportation. But we decided that the facts spoke for themselves and the report was worth the risk. We were all too aware that our BBC colleagues in Johannesburg had been denied entry into Zimbabwe, but we were determined this should not affect the tone of our reports or the rigour of our journalism.

Tuesday

We broadcast a report that repeated the allegations that food was being used as a weapon of political cohesion by government officials. This time the claim was made by Heather Bennett, standing as a candidate for the Movement for Democratic Change in Chimanimani. It was a seat held by her husband Roy, now doing a year's hard labour in a prison cell for getting too physical with the justice minister in parliament. The Bennetts' farm was taken from them a year ago. Heather was offered a bribe: defect to the Zanu-PF and the farm would be returned.

The report was balanced by an interview with a government party activist who is running a former white-owned farm in Bindura, south of Harare. The eloquently outspoken Remigious Matangira has made a thriving business out of his 400 hectares of arable land growing maize and bananas. His passion for that land was infectious - land he said, which has now been returned to its rightful owners.

He denied that food was being withheld from MDC supporters, and he claimed that there were no shortages despite the drought. We tempered his enthusiasm by adding in our report that the South African-based Famine Early Warning System Network estimated that nearly six million people in Zimbabwe will be in need of food aid before the year is out.

We know that all our reports are being monitored by the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Authority, but no restrictions have been placed on us, and no official minder forced on us. The freedom to report here is remarkable in comparison to my time in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

Wednesday

The day before the election, President Mugabe holds his last rally in an opposition stronghold in Harare. After four hours reddening in the sun, we managed to doorstep him as he came off the podium. I asked him why he'd turned the election into a "bury Tony Blair" campaign rather than defending the competence of his government. I asked him about the irregularities in the voters' roll which the MDC claims contains the names of 800,000 so-called ghost votes. His responses were curt and angry. But at least he was prepared to allow access to him and answer the questions.

To balance the report I added interviews of the grieving family and friends of an MDC supporter they claimed was beaten to death by Zanu-PF thugs, and found a woman officially registered as dead hanging up the washing of her six children. She's an MDC activist.

Thursday

Election day is spent rooted next to a polling station giving live updates for Sky News every hour. A brief respite to investigate reports that Zanu-PF are bussing voters from rural areas into Harare. The story doesn't stand up. We get soaked in a tropical downpour. News spreads about the arrest of the Sunday Telegraph team found outside a polling station without accreditation.

Friday

The Pope is receiving the last rites. As the first election results start to come in, calls to the foreign desk go unanswered.

David Chater is Sky News' Africa Correspondent

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