The sound of defiant laughter gets under Mugabe's skin

In Zimbabwe, most ordinary people do not speak English, let alone read it. But so irritated is President Robert Mugabe with the opposition Daily News that four of its journalists were last week arrested – briefly – under a legal sub-section that effectively no longer exists.

One of the four, news editor John Gambanga, laughs: "We had to be called in on Friday to have our charge sheets changed from 'spreading false news' to 'publishing subversive material'. The first charge was struck down as unconstitutional by the supreme court last year, but the police had not realised this. And I cannot see the new charge coming to anything.''

Surprisingly, perhaps, for an opposition paper under intense official pressure to disappear, the mood is lighthearted in the Harare newsroom of the country's only independent daily. "We crack a lot of jokes at morning conference – it is our way of living with the pressure,'' said one reporter.

In the two years and 79 days since the News hit the streets of Zimbabwe's main cities, it has overcome more obstacles than most newspapers face in decades. At first there was the reluctance of advertisers – cautious of associating with an opposition paper in a hitherto one-daily state. Then, ahead of last year's parliamentary elections, a firebomb was thrown into a shop in the same building as the Daily News. Finally, gunmen held up security guards at the paper's printing plant and blew the place up.

Both President Mugabe and his information minister, Jonathan Moyo, have launched defamation suits against the paper – the latter after the cheeky tabloid dusted off and reprinted a scathing essay against the veteran leader, written a few years earlier by his now-loyal mouthpiece.

Last week's arrest of editor Geoffrey Nyarota and three of his staff – after they claimed in an article that police vehicles had been used to loot white-owned farms – was the young paper's latest brush with the law. Earlier this year, three reporters were picked up over a story alleging that President Mugabe received kickbacks during the tender process for Harare's new airport.

The paper's vendors are constant targets of assault by militants of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) who periodically declare entire towns and districts to be "Daily News-free zones".

Now the newspaper – which on page after page exposes ruling-party violence, laments the state of the economy, promotes opposition views and pokes fun at government ministers in cartoons – is in the extraordinary position of having to turn away advertising. "I must be the only editor in the world who has to say: 'Sorry, I have not got enough pages in my paper to print your ad','' said Mr Nyarota. Since the printing plant was bombed last year, the Daily News has had to hire contract printers and has cut its pagination. The print run is down from 100,000 to 80,000 copies daily.

As Zimbabwe's crisis has deepened – from food riots in January 1998 through to the current white-targeted violence, linked to the President's determination to scare the country into re-electing him next year – the Daily News has become unashamedly more biased.

When the opposition Movement For Democratic Change was created at the end of 1999 to challenge Zanu-PF's 20-year hegemony in parliamentary elections in June 2000, the young party found a natural ally in the six-month-old Daily News. Its core readership – black, urban and professional – is identical, demographically, to the electorate that brought the MDC to within an inch of a parliamentary majority.

The majority of Zimbabwe's population is rural, non-English-speaking and labours under traditional chiefs or paternalistic white farming bosses. But in the cities, the country's superb education system has created a generation of dynamic 30-somethings with the same individualistic aspirations as their peers in Europe.

One former Daily News journalist said it was not so much the quality of the tabloid that had led to its success, but the laughable ineptitude of the state media, such as the daily Herald or Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation.

He said: "When the Daily News launched in June 1999, many of us were unsure that it could succeed. In 1991, another opposition paper, the Daily Gazette, was started. Its launch coincided with our worst ever drought and it folded pretty quickly.

"When the Daily News came along, many of the top journalists turned down jobs because they did not believe it could work. Indeed, the beginning was very hard and we worked without pay a few months after the launch. The Daily News really took off during the parliamentary election campaign when the Herald and ZBC made themselves look stupid, lying beyond anyone's belief about the attendance figures at political rallies. This nauseating propaganda contributed more than anything else to creating a lack of confidence in the government among the majority of people."

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