Stopping the Presses

harare—It is disconcerting to visit a newspaper with no newsroom, but surreal experiences are not uncommon in Zimbabwe. Take The Daily News: when I was there in early February, the …

Reporter Precious Shumba in the makeshift newsroom of The Daily News, in February, 2004/ Photograph by Marian Botsford Fraser

harare—It is disconcerting to visit a newspaper with no newsroom, but surreal experiences are not uncommon in Zimbabwe. Take The Daily News: when I was there in early February, the room its reporters still referred to as “our newsroom” was padlocked and empty.

The paper, shut down by court order in mid-September, 2003, was once a robust forty-eight-page tabloid, the best-selling paper in the country, with a readership of half a million on any given day. It started printing again in late January, when the police who were occupying the premises (after removing all the computers, telephones, and other equipment) finally obeyed the repeated orders of a second court to leave. But by then, it was a shrunken phoenix of twelve to sixteen pages, printing only 80,000 copies a day. Almost nothing was signed except letters to the editor.

Across the hall from the padlocked newsroom, a handful of reporters and editors inhabited one corner of a large room. There were six or seven desks, a few chairs, five or six computers, one television, and somewhere, a single phone. Otherwise the room was an echo chamber, with open patches on the floor where wiring used to be.

The dozen or so people sitting on desks and angling for the use of computers were all young black men. Somewhere, behind a closed and unmarked door, there was an editor, but she was not named in the paper.

For two uncertain weeks, these dozen young men had somehow managed to get a paper out every day, though the quality of the reporting was uneven. Their salaries were around $200,000 ZWD (about $50 U.S.) a month, less than that made by a school security guard. I was told that reporters at the state-run papers and at Zimbabwe Broad-casting make five times that, and that their salaries would increase to about $2 million ZWD a month by April. Inflation, running at around 600 percent, had turned Zimbabwe’s currency into mock money: stacks and stacks of bills engraved with huge numbers but with no real value. A cup of coffee cost $3,000, a tank of petrol $170,000.

The Daily News
cost $1,000 ZWD on the street, three to four times less than the state-run papers. Its motto: “Telling it like it is.” A piece signed “The Litany Bird” lamented the impact of the war veterans’ seizure of farmlands, which had made almost half of the country’s eleven-and-a-half million people reliant on international food aid. An editorial detailed Zimbabwe’s human-rights record in the past year: 1,000 cases of politically motivated violence, murder, rape, kidnapping, and torture.

The Daily News is regularly prevented from “telling it like it is” by the government’s Media and Information Commission (MIC), which licenses all media and monitors their compliance with the repressive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The decidedly non-compliant paper was shut down for operating without a licence, after unsuccessfully appealing the constitutionality of the Act. The resulting occupation of the premises was thrice declared illegal by one court, yet each time the police defied the order to leave. When ordered to license the paper’s owner, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), the MIC refused. Whenever one arm of the court has ruled in favour of ANZ, the ruling has been appealed by the MIC, and the battle has moved to another level.

There is now almost no official foreign media presence in Zimbabwe. The lone stringer for the BBC’s African service was deported and has not been replaced. Foreign correspondents often don’t get accreditation; one fearless resident reporter gave up her British cit-izenship because, as a Zimbabwean, she cannot be kicked out. The Daily News has been the only daily to report critically on government activities and important court cases. It has relentlessly covered the trial of Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, who is currently embroiled in a cunningly drawn-out court case, charged with plotting to kill President Robert Mugabe with the help of a mysterious character named Ari Ben Menashe, a resident of Canada. (There is one privately owned weekend paper, the Independent; two of its journalists and one editor were arrested in January for “embarrassing” Mugabe by reporting his use of an Air Zimbabwe aircraft for personal travel.)

In February, in the temporary news-room, talk was muted, the mood sombre. Precious Shumba, a twenty-eight-year-old reporter, wore a tie and a bravely coloured shirt, but he was ashamed of his frayed shoes. In his three years at the News he’d been arrested twice and once threatened with death. He expressed fierce devotion to his paper, but said that since the intrepid editor John Gambanga had been demoted to deputy editor last May, the editorial line had become timid.

John Gambanga himself was a shell of a man. His shirt and tie hung loosely on his neck. He could not afford his children’s school fees and, like most Zimbabweans, he rarely ate beef anymore. Most people’s savings had been wiped out, he said, while a handful of high-flown supporters of the ruling Zanu Patriotic Front party had grown fantastically rich by speculating on the foreign-exchange rate and seizing rich agricultural land.

From the window of The Daily News, the flag of Zimbabwe was visible on a distant building. The hoist side of the flag bears a bright yellow image of a bird, taken from a soapstone sculpture found at Great Zimbabwe, the magnificent stone enclosure built by the Shona people between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. At independence in 1980, the fortress gave Zimbabwe its name and this mythical bird for its flag. Such birds are believed to be messengers from the ancestors.

Few people realize that the sculpture has been censored, in a way, for its more patriotic purpose. On the actual pillar, just below the bird’s claws, there is a sharply carved crocodile rampant, with fierce eyes and wide-open jaws. When I asked John Gambanga if this is now the age of the crocodile in Zimbabwe, he said yes: “The people of Zimbabwe are being devoured. We have become a lawless society.” Some in this stripped-down newsroom said, half in jest, that the only hope for Zimbabwe was an army-led coup.

But wishful thinking cannot save The Daily News in the short term. Two days after my visit, the Supreme Court upheld the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which says that journalists and media outlets cannot work in Zimbabwe without a licence from the MIC. To defy the ruling is to risk two years in prison, with few avenues for appeal.

The Daily News did not print that night. Within a month, the publishers announced they were releasing most of their employees, who were asking for a 960 percent pay increase. The court cases have been delayed, again. As this story went to press, the paper was still dormant. If its owners cannot afford legal expenses and another lengthy closure, the paper will probably fold.

In Zimbabwe, the crocodile is indeed rampant.

Marian Botsford Fraser
Marian Botsford Fraser (@mbotsfordfraser) is a Toronto-based writer, critic, and broadcaster.