Newspapers Africa: Mugabe's muzzle tightens

Zimbabwe's President is threatening to shut down the country's last two genuinely independent newspapers. Ed Caesar reports on a desperate battle for free speech
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The Independent Online

The price of a loaf of bread in Harare doubled on Wednesday night. President Mugabe has vowed to extend his rule for another two years. Zimbabweans are flooding into neighbouring countries. In these circumstances, the fate of a couple of low-circulation newspapers might seem a little trifling.

But for anyone with an interest in freedom of expression in this troubled African nation, the events of the past week have made dispiriting news. Last Sunday, the registrar-general Tobaiwa Mudede announced that the government had stripped Zimbabwean citizenship from Trevor Ncube - an academic-turned-publisher, and the major shareholder in the country's last two genuinely independent titles, the Zimbabwe Independent and its Sunday sibling, The Standard. The registrar-general has claimed that, because Ncube's father was Zambian, he is no longer entitled to Zimbabwean citizenship. And under Zimbabwe's increasingly stringent media laws, non-Zimbabweans are not allowed to own newspapers.

The announcement by the Zimbabwean government marks the latest step in their campaign to muzzle the free press. In 2002, the government started proceedings to close down the independent Daily News and also began to expel journalists - especially, but not exclusively, foreign ones. Some of the most prominent journalists to find themselves listed as "enemies of the state" were Geoff Nyarota, founding editor of the Daily News; Wilf Mbanga, now editor of the exiles' newspaper The Zimbabwean; Andrew Meldrum of The Guardian; and The Independent's Basildon Peta. When the government closed down the Daily News a year later, and expelled all foreign journalists, Ncube's titles became a major target. In 2004, for instance, four journalists and a senior executive at the Zimbabwe Independent were arrested for criminal defamation of Mugabe. A year later, Ncube's passport was seized for a week under legislation that imposed a travel ban on those who "harm the national interest". And now Ncube's ownership is being threatened.

"They want my businesses," says Ncube, speaking from South Africa, where he also publishes the Mail & Guardian. "Why else would they do this? [The government] considers me a pain in the whatever."

And well it might. Under Ncube's guidance, the Zimbabwe Independent, which is published every Friday, and The Standard have broken a series of stories that have embarrassed the Mugabe government. Despite both papers struggling to exceed a circulation of 25,000, they still hold influence, because each newspaper is read by between seven and 10 people. The reporting work of the Zimbabwe Independent's chief journalist Dumisani Muleya was recognised last year when she was short-listed for CNN's African Journalist of the Year. Ncube, naturally, is not prepared to take this latest flogging lying down.

"I have approached the courts in Zimbabwe to challenge the decision," he says. "Of course, I cannot underestimate the facts - I know I have a fight on my hands, and the registrar-general is notoriously stubborn. But I'm prepared for the long haul."

One glimmer of light for the embattled publisher came on Thursday, when the Media and Information Commission (MIC) ostensibly distanced themselves from the party line. In a statement, the MIC said that Ncube could hang on to his newspapers, even if his nationality was rescinded.

"That seemed like promising news," says the proprietor. "The long and short of it, however, is that there are no guarantees in Zimbabwe. The fact that my case is in the open means that there are lots of other people who are rubbing their hands in glee, waiting to gang up on me and extract any advantage they can from this."

Even without this latest setback, independent reporting in Mugabe's Zimbabwe has been taking a hammering in the past six years. For one, the cost of licensing and registering journalists has risen dramatically.

"My management came back to the office in the new year to find that the fees have increased by almost 100-fold," said Ncube. "That's money we struggle to earn, and we have to pass it over to the MIC. If you combine that with the hyper-inflation environment, it makes it very hard to be a newspaper publisher. The costs of printing are sky-high, circulation has come under pressure and companies who might once have advertised in the papers are either closing down, or do not have enough money to advertise.

"The first problem, though, is that it is now very difficult to get good journalists in Zimbabwe. Most skilled people have left the country, and as a publisher, I am battling to retain skilled people."

Peta Thornycroft, The Daily Telegraph's Zimbabwe correspondent, and one of the last journalists from a foreign paper still working in the country, says that Ncube's situation is a "grave one". Indeed, it is clear that the threat of losing one's passport is one of the major tactics the Mugabe government has used to stifle anti-Mugabe reporting, as Thornycroft, a Zimbabwean herself, can testify.

"They said that in order to be a journalist in Zimbabwe, I had to renounce my claim to British citizenship," said Thornycroft. "But, despite doing that, and applying every year to be accredited, they have never [granted accreditation]. They took my money, but they never accredited me, so all these years I have been working illegally."

Despite her precarious position - unaccredited journalists are liable to hefty fines and jail terms - Thornycroft has continued to report from the region. And, she says, some aspects of her job have become a little easier.

"The actual reporting - being out on the streets - is nowhere near as dangerous as it was two years ago," she says. "Because resistance to the government has been broken, there is no real political activity in the country. That means the political arrests have diminished, and torture, as we saw it, has also gone down. With that said, the Central Intelligence Organisation is everywhere. The Stasi had nothing on this lot. And because they are not paid very well, they can say 'there's a white lady here, and she might be a journalist' and they'll earn some extra money."

The prognosis, then, is not good. Despite calls by independent bodies like Reporters Without Borders for neighbouring leaders - such as South Africa's Thabo Mbeki - to put pressure on Mugabe to stop his assault on free speech, little has been done. The Mugabe government is willing to imprison or deport dissenters with impunity, and journalists are no exception. In December 2005, the Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa made the following brazen statement: "There are people who gallivant across the globe calling for sanctions against the country. Those are the ones we are targeting. I don't want to mention names because they know themselves. If you are one of them, you are in for it."

Ncube has been "in for it" for years. So why not give up the struggle and concentrate on his publishing interests in South Africa? What keeps this little band of scribblers going? "I suppose we have little victories," says Ncube. "And, for me, publishing newspapers is more than a business. It's a passion, particularly in a country like Zimbabwe. Our role, here, is not just to maintain the bottom line. We are here to play the part that a vibrant opposition party should play.

"We should be keeping the government on their toes. We should be trying to ensure, as much as possible, accountability and transparency - shining a light on the state and its abuses of power. We should be trying to make sure that the man on the street's rights are maintained."