Silencing the free press Editorial
Stabroek News
October 28, 2003

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In the latest issue of CPU News, the newspaper of the Commonwealth Press Union, the founding Chief Executive of the independent newspaper the Daily News in Zimbabwe tells the sad story of the trials and tribulations it has faced. Founded in l999, he said the Daily News came on to the scene dedicated to high professional standards of journalism, integrity and fairness, backed by a code of ethics to which management and the editorial staff subscribed. The paper was an instant hit, increasing to a print run of 120,000 and severely affecting the circulation of the government owned The Herald. “When we started the Daily News” Mr Mbanga said “we had no political agenda, no secret plan to topple governments. We were just a band of journalists and businessmen who were appalled at what was happening in our country, and believed that the creation of an independent voice was vital to protect all that we hold dear.”

Let Mr Mbanga continue the story in his own words:

“With the advent of the Daily News, the people of Zimbabwe became accurately informed on a daily basis about the excesses of the ruling Zanu (PF) government. The paper kept tabs on the acceleration of anti-opposition violence, while breaking such stories as the President and cabinet’s l,l50% salary hikes when 80% of Zimbabweans were living below the poverty line; the first lady’s multi-million dollar shopping sprees abroad while industry ground to a halt for lack of foreign exchange; the allocation of grabbed white farms to political cronies and key defence force officers; and desperate shortages of fuel, bread, staple maize meal and bank notes.

The Daily News thus became midwife to a number of life-changing developments in Zimbabwe; the emergence in 1999 of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), the only viable opposition to Robert Mugabe’s 20-year reign, the rejection of government’s proposals in national referendum on constitutional reforms in February 2000 (which would have given Mugabe even more powers) and the general election later that year.

It informed the world of the vicious government crackdown on the opposition before, during and after the election and exposed the massive electoral fraud involved in both this and the presidential election in 2002.

Unhindered access to information by the masses, who are then better placed to make decisions and to ask questions, is not good news in a dictatorship. Therefore the Daily News had to go.

The battle was waged on several different fronts; staff and advertisers were intimidated, van drivers and readers were beaten and abused by ruling Zanu (PF) functionaries. Then came the arrests on frivolous charges and then the two bombings. Credit must go to the staff, a superb and dedicated team who suffered untold harassment and beatings, and even managed to produce the paper the very day after the presses had been bombed.

When it became obvious that the Daily News would continue to operate against all odds, government enacted in March 2002 the legislation that would finally finish it off - the mis-named Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA).

Massive arrests of journalists, most of them Daily News staffers, ensued. The paper immediately challenged the Act on constitutional grounds. It was this challenge that came before the Supreme Court bench last month. That august body’s response, that the newspaper could not seek legal protection while it was breaking the law, paved the way for the invasion of the building by armed police and the confiscation of vital computers. The paper has not appeared since. All the journalists working for the paper, management and directors and even sympathetic demonstrators have been arrested and charged.

Although the voice of the Daily News has been silenced and it would appear that tyranny has triumphed - we have not heard the last word.”

The paper subsequently decided to apply for registration and a licence, required under the new law, to the government appointed media commission. The application was rejected. The Daily News then applied to the court which a few days ago held that the media commission had been improperly constituted and had been wrong to deny a licence and ordered that it be issued by a properly constituted commission. The commission has said it will appeal. It remains to be seen what happen next and whether the newspaper will in fact be permitted to resume publication, especially as the government had ignored an earlier court order enforcing a section in the new law which said publication of a newspaper could continue while an application for registration was pending, and has also refused to allow the newspaper to reopen, despite the new order, and has arrested one of the directors.

It was Mr. Nelson Mandela who said “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy.” The appalling attacks on press freedom in Zimbabwe have been condemned by leading figures from international bodies concerned with constitutional law, human rights, the media, trade unions and the business sector. We now take press freedom in Guyana for granted but those in their thirties and over will remember that there was a time when the free media had been silenced here. Our newspaper joins in the condemnation of this vicious attack on press freedom in a sister Commonwealth country and urges the government of Zimbabwe to honour the court order and to respect the constitutional rights of the people to freedom of expression.