Mugabe threatens to force closure of critical newspaper

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The Zimbabwe government yesterday ordered the country's only independent daily newspaper to close. It accused the company directors of The Daily News of flouting investment laws and exchange control regulations, says the state media.

The Zimbabwe Investment Centre (ZIC), an arm of the Zimbabwe government's Ministry of Finance, told Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), which publishes The Daily News, to surrender the paper's investment certificate and discontinue operations immediately, claiming the basis on which the company was established had been removed.

Human rights campaigners condemned the move as a bid to intimidate opponents of President Robert Mugabe's regime and silence free speech before next year's presidential elections. Geoff Nyarota, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, said the News had not violated any of the mentioned laws and vowed to continue publishing.

"They haven't moved to try to force us to stop publishing but you never know with this government," Mr Nyarota said. "Anything may happen from the moment I end this conversation with you."

The barely concealed government attempt to close the newspaper has outraged the opposition in Zimbabwe. "Having failed to ban The Daily News or to silence it through two bombings, new and naked attempts of muzzling the paper are now being formulated," the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) said.

The MDC, which is shunned by the publicly funded government-run media except when the reports about the opposition party are negative, relies on the News and other privately owned papers to get its message across to the electorate. The Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) said the latest action was not surprising, given the government "would stop at nothing in its efforts to silence all perceived critics ahead of crunch presidential elections next year".

Richard Mbaiwa, the executive director of ZIC, in a letter to ANZ, accused the firm of violating the Zimbabwe Investment Act by changing its shareholding structure without the authority of the ZIC. He declared null and void an investment into The Daily News by a company called Renaissance Asset Management (RAM)last year. RAM, wholly owned by Zimbabwean businessmen, took over much of the foreign investment into The Daily News and owns a controlling 60 percent stake in the company.

In fact, RAM rescued the News when it was facing financial difficulties. The newspaper, established in 1999, has overtaken the state-owned Herald as the best-selling newspaper in Zimbabwe with 100 000 copies daily. In January a bomb destroyed the newspaper's printing press in what it claimed was a political attack.

Mr Mbaiwa said the investment by RAM into the News was unprocedural because it had not been authorised by ZIC. He also accused the founders of ANZ, Geoff Nyarota and Wilf Mbanga, of misleading ZIC about their investments into ANZ

In a lengthy statement yesterday, ANZ denied all the allegations levelled against the company and its director by ZIC and dismissed them as part of sustained efforts to try to close the newspaper. Ten days ago, four ANZ directors were arrested by police in connection with similar allegations.

The foreign minister, Stan Mudenge, has claimed the News was a key beneficiary of funding from the British government. News spokesmen deny they were funded by the UK, although they admitted the paper was originally kick-started by money from a company called Africa Media Investments (AMI), which is owned by British businessmen.

And the land grab continues. On Monday, the government seized 35,000 hectares owned by the famous South African mining dynasty, the Oppenheimer family. The Oppenheimers, main shareholders in the diamond-mining giant, De Beers, are believed to own the largest tracts of land by a single family or company in Zimbabwe.

The vice-president, Joseph Msika descended on the Oppenheimer Deshan Estate and declared the government had carved out for resettlement 35,000-hectares out of the 140,000-hectare estate. He told illegal settlers, who invaded and occupied the land in February last year, that the government would properly resettle them on the seized land from next week. He said the government would also shortly seize 30,000 more hectares from the Oppenheimers.