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Tyrant v. Daily News

Robert Mugabe's war on the press heads to Zimbabwe's High Court.

12:00 AM, Oct 13, 2006 • By JAMES KIRCHICK
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SINCE JOURNEYING to Zimbabwe in August, the situation there seems to have gone from bad to worse. On September 13, police detained and allegedly tortured top union leaders planning to hold peaceful demonstrations in the country's major cities. The following week, the government denied entry to a delegation from the American Coalition of Black Trade Unionists hoping to visit its weary comrades, even though the group had obtained visas and notified the regime of its plans well ahead of their arrival. And--in spite of all this--Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe received a hearty welcome from his fellow statesmen at last month's United Nations General Assembly meeting. (As he always does for his frequent foreign jaunts, the President used Air Zimbabwe's only transcontinental aircraft, forcing the national carrier to charter a Portuguese plane for the duration of his time abroad.) There was no indication from the world body that its members would do anything to help the Zimbabwean people and Mugabe had the nerve to suggest that, "there is no hunger anymore, and we have a bumper harvest, so there is enough maize in the country." He ought to tell that to the people I met in Harare, who were digging the ground for mice to eat no more than 8 miles from his presidential mansion, the largest private residence in Africa.

So it was more than a little encouraging to read the news out of Harare on Monday that the Daily News, a crusading independent newspaper whose journalists have been routinely harassed, whose offices have been firebombed, whose printing presses have been destroyed, and which was forced by the government to shut down in September 2003, is one step closer to resuming publication. The paper's publishers made an appeal to the country's High Court to grant them a license to print, as the succession of repressive laws that Mugabe enacted in 2002 requires all local media to register with the government. In a country where those meant to enforce the rule of law all too often see it as an irritation rather than, as they ought to, "their God," (as Beatrice Mtetwa, the country's top media lawyer, told me in August), the Mugabe-packed state media commission has twice refused to grant the Daily News this license in spite of a Supreme Court ruling that the ban was invalid. At the height of its popularity, the News had a circulation of 150,000 (and a readership of much more than that; the number of readers per copy is much higher in Africa than in Western nations), an impressive number for a country of about 14 million people.

The News's struggle to reopen has taken place within a larger context of repressive actions against the media. In January, the government arrested board members of Voice of the People (VOP), an independent radio station, and only in September was the case thrown out. Mugabe has successfully jammed the Voice of America and BBC. All four of the country's radio stations are government run, as is the one television station. And since 2002, foreign journalists have been legally barred from entering the country. But Mugabe does not view all foreign press with suspicion. Just before I arrived in Harare, Al Jazeeera announced that it would be the first international television station to open a bureau there.

I recently had the pleasure of meeting a former Daily News writer, who now must file stories for news websites anonymously. The mere task of arranging interviews risks police harassment and jail time. The state newspapers (which recently doubled their price due to the increasing cost of newsprint) would be comical were Zimbabwe's plight not so tragic. Hawkers sell the thin, amateurishly produced rags (The Herald and The Chronicle) at nearly every major intersection. I do not recall seeing anyone ever purchase a copy. "People [used to] read the Daily News to know what was happening. People read the Herald to know the opposite of what is happening," the writer told me.

What sort of person would betray their trade by working for the state media? Mtetwa told me that several of the top editors and journalists (in her words, "fiction writers") at The Herald own farms seized several years ago during the spate of raids that forced whites off their land. Joining them in agricultural title, she said, are the Chief Correspondent and Diplomatic Correspondent for the Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation.

In 2004 the Committee to Protect Journalists labeled Zimbabwe "The World's Worst Place to be a Journalist." Not long ago, the Information Minister used quite colorful language to describe the few independent newspapers left in the country--which only operate weekly and face the constant threat of being shut down--as the "running dogs of imperialism." Mugabe was a student of Mao while imprisoned during the Ian Smith years and he and his regime are at least faithful to the Great Teacher's rhetorical virtues.