The Media Column: The press year's most important event goes largely unreported

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The Independent Online

Yesterday was World Press Freedom Day. Its passing probably flitted across the consciousness of few media practitioners in this country, but Dumisani Muleya, back home in Zimbabwe after a short trip to England, was aware of its significance. Last week, he collected the first Speaker Abbot Award, which honours journalists who risk their lives to campaign for parliamentary democracy. Muleya paid tribute to all those journalists in Zimbabwe who are fighting for press freedom.

But while he was away, the Mugabe regime let it be known that he had gone to Britain in order to be brainwashed into further criticising what was going on in his own country. This was, Muleya acknowledged with a shrug, somewhat upsetting. But, he added, the present Zimbabwe government is on the edge of a precipice and will either collapse or self-destruct. Democracy, he said, will prevail.

His government has done its best to persuade him otherwise. Condemning some of President Mugabe's policies in the Zimbabwe Independent - a weekly paper with a staff of 15 and about 30,000 sales, but a readership approaching 250,000 - was enough to get banged up a couple of times. Pointing out Mugabe's misuse of one of the state airline's few aircraft also meant that Muleya's feet, and those of editor Iden Wetherell and news editor Vincent Kahiya, barely touched the ground on the way to the slammer.

One night Muleya was beaten up in a Harare street, and although he cannot prove this was because of his journalism, he is fairly sure it wasn't because of the tie he was wearing. He's phlegmatic about it: "You take the flak, the intimidation, the arrests and the rest when necessary." The bumpy ride through his career has distressed his girlfriend and parents, who doubtless would be much happier if he had accepted a job in neighbouring South Africa. Many Zimbabwean journalists have left the country, their passage accelerated by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists' nomination of Zimbabwe as one of the 10 most dangerous countries in the world for media professionals.

Those government critics that remain have a diminishing number of newspapers in which to express their views. The government controls two daily and four weekly newspapers, as well as all radio and television stations. The Independent is one of only three small titles, all weeklies, that continue the struggle for press freedom despite increasingly hostile government retaliation. They will never give up, said Muleya - "We believe we are on the right side of history."

Such a handsome turn of phrase came in useful last week when he was asked, at 10 minutes' notice, to address the Commons International Development Select Committee. He spoke and answered questions for 45 minutes before, that evening, receiving his award from the Speaker, Michael Martin. Named after Speaker Charles Abbot, who, in the early 1800s, was the first in Parliament to recognise the importance of journalism in the democratic process, the award is a timely reminder that newspapers aren't always just about big money, Big Brother and big tits.

It may, in some circles, lack the cachet of Hairdressing Writer of the Year, or Pets Correspondent of the Year - I think I made these up, although I cannot be certain - but Muleya is sure of its worth. It will, he believes, encourage journalists in his country "to have more courage, to muster even more moral fibre and to continue to write about what's really going on in Zimbabwe".

The presentation ceremony at the House was attended mostly by gallery reporters and sundry interested MPs. Coverage in our newspapers and elsewhere was scant - the event created fewer ripples in the media world than did Michael Parkinson's defection to ITV or Greg Dyke's stumbling performance on Have I Got News for You?. To the public, it was invisible.

But with the backing of Speaker Martin and financial support from benefactors British Airways, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the philanthropic Silbury Fund, the award is to be made annually. Perhaps next year we'll take more notice. Dumisani Muleya will be hoping so, just as he is hoping that the proposed English cricket tour will be scrapped, as otherwise "it can only help legitimise the regime", and that oppressed journalists everywhere will keep the faith.

Interesting statistic: 46 journalists were murdered in 20 countries last year and at least 136 are currently imprisoned in 27 countries. And in case it has slipped anyone's mind, yesterday was World Press Freedom Day.

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