22 February 2004

Zimbabwe: Daily News Future Uncertain, People in Zimbabwe 'Deserve Better', Editor Says

interview

Washington, DC — After a tumultuous five year history, the future of the feisty independent Zimbabwean newspaper, the Daily News, remains unresolved, following the postponement last week by the High Court of Zimbabwe of a scheduled hearing on the paper's urgent appeal to resume publication.

The Court set March 3 as the new date to hear the application by the publisher, Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ). to have its journalists accredited by the government. A controversial law known as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) makes it a crime to work as a journalist without a license from the government's Media and Information Commission. Daily News reporters had refused to seek licensing from the Commission, and the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe challenged compulsory registration in court.

After being closed down last September, the newspaper was able to resume publication on January 22, after another court ordered police to vacate the paper's offices and stop interfering with operations. Soon after publication resumed, the ANZ chief executive, Sam Nkomo, and the editor of the Daily News on Sunday, Bill Saidi, visited Washington where they spoke with AllAfrica's Charles Cobb Jr. Last week, following the interview, the High Court upheld as constitutional portions of the press law that required journalists to be licensed. Daily News reporters, who faced arrest and criminal prosecution, stopped working and the paper disappeared from the streets. Excerpts:

How long do you think you'll be able to keep publishing before you get into trouble once again?

Sam Nkomo: The reason that we are publishing is not because of any victories in the courts or any other doing of our own, but that we thank god for his divine intervention for allowing us to publish once more. We do not know how long it will last before we are shut down, but what I believe is that: Where God has opened a door no one can shut it. Where God has closed it, no one can open it.

We are also very grateful to supporters of the Daily News, human rights activists throughout the world who came to our aid lobbying on our behalf. We are grateful to the lawyers, and the readers of the Daily News for their support.

Bill Saidi: The struggle between the government and us goes a long way back, way back before September 12, 2003 (when the News' first appeal of the law was dismissed by the Court). It goes back to the time when we started. The government was not very happy - to put it mildly - that we had started an independent newspaper, which had the avowed principle of telling it like it is. I think this is what has gotten us into the present trouble with the government. We hope to continue to play our role in sustaining the democracy that we are building in Zimbabwe.

I don't really understand Mugabe. When I was in Zimbabwe in the 1970s and when I returned to Zimbabwe after independence, Mugabe did seem to be a genuine hero of the liberation struggle. Zanu-PF, his party, seemed to be popular. How could he turn into a tyrant who seeks to cling to power? What changed Mugabe, or did he change?

Sam Nkomo: Many people thought that Mugabe was coming in with some signs of hope that things would be better. But people forget quite easily. They will remember that Mugabe was an avowed socialist from the start. In socialist countries, they didn't have elections, and that was what he wanted - no elections. If he's in, he's in forever. He believes himself to be a chief, and chiefs are there forever. He does talk about democracy, but not the democracy that you and I know about.

You're saying essentially that the man has not changed?

Sam Nkomo: Yes.

Bill Saidi: Every time he speaks in public he reminds people of the struggle, how Zanu-PF had been involved in the struggle, and he keeps talking about how it was in the struggle. He keeps talking about how "we beat the colonialists," and is so much against the west. He calls his critics 'running dogs of imperialism'. This is language from the ancient past. I think he knows he is a failure as a leader and in his frustration I think he is taking it out on everybody.

As you may know, here in the United States, Zimbabwe became the symbol of the liberation struggle in Southern Africa and, as a result, there's an argument going on now about Zimbabwe. Some here see Mugabe as a genuine liberation leader, still trying to liberate his country, being unfairly beat up on by people like you, who they regards as pawns of imperialism or the white minority. There is also the argument that Zimbabwe cannot be seen as a tyranny because it has a strong elected opposition in the Parliament. How do you respond ?

Sam Nkomo: If you tell our children who were born after independence in 1980 about the liberation struggle and what some of us did who fought during that time, they don't understand. They want education, jobs, and other things. Those things have nothing to do with imperialists; they have to do with how we manage our economy and our affairs in Zimbabwe. We have an opposition, but it is dislodged. We have 13 mayors [from the opposition] all over [the country] but they can't work. They're suspended. So it is tyranny in another form, a very clever tyranny.

Bill Saidi: The constitution of Zimbabwe allows Zanu-PF to have 36 un-elected non-constituent seats. If not for those 36 seats, Zanu-PF would not have been able to control Parliament after the election in 2000. The MDC [Movement for Democratic Change] took 57 seats to 62 for Zanu-PF.

After the elections, what the government did to the MDC was to charge [opposition leader Morgan] Tsvangirai with treason. It's really a strange, almost bizarre case. This is the trouble with Mugabe. The semblance of a democracy is there, but the reality is that Mugabe is going to do everything in his power - everything - to frustrate the emergence of a democracy.

Take the example of the Daily News. He knows that with the Daily News, Zimbabwe can be considered one of the few countries in the world with a thriving vibrant independent press. What does he do? He creates AIPPA. AIPPA is a dangerous law. I think there are very few countries that have thing like AIPPA.

AIPPA the press law . . .

Bill Saidi: The Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, under which there are so many restrictions on the press [that] people have said that it muzzles the independent press completely. So far, every editor of the independent press, at one time or another, has been locked up. Every executive of the independent press has at one time or another been locked up. What kind of freedom of the press is that?

Are there differences within Zanu-PF?

Sam Nkomo: If there is going to be any division in Zanu-PF, it will happen after Mugabe is gone. Not before. They are all so scared of Mugabe. Those who have tried to be different have been booted out of Zanu.

Bill Saidi: We know that there are differences within Zanu-PF, but we also know it is very difficult for someone to leave Zanu-PF and hope to survive, or to disagree with Zanu-PF and hope to remain in the party. Edgar Tekere is a prime example. Edgar was a Zanu-PF top leader through and through. He was very close to Mugabe. He began to talk about corruption and say he didn't believe in a one-party state. After all that, Mugabe kicked him out of the party.

What is your assessment of the role being played in Zimbabwe by South Africa and President Thabo Mbeki?

Sam Nkomo: Our freedom should not depend on Mbeki, it should depend on ourselves. But during our independence struggle and the struggle against apartheid, we were helped by our international friends. It doesn't seem to us that Mbeki is helping the people of Zimbabwe. It seems that he is hell bent to protect Mugabe and his government, and his continued oppression of us.

Why would Mbeki not use his influence with Mugabe to press for change?

Sam Nkomo: That is the question Zimbabweans are asking.Since a substantial chunk of the Zimbabwe opposition emerges from the labor unions of Zimbabwe, we wonder if Mbeki is looking over his shoulder at Cosatu [SouthAfrica's powerful trade union federation]. We know that Cosatu has its differences with the ANC government, even though it's part of the ANC coalition. We wonder whether the example of labor power in Zimbabwe makes Mbeki a little nervous.

Sam Nkomo: Also, don't forget, in Zambia a government was ousted by a trade union headed by [Frederick] Chiluba, and he might think that if it happens in Zimbabwe, it is coming to South Africa. If he fears that, then he is penalizing us for things that he shouldn't be doing.

What role should the United States government be playing?

Sam Nkomo: We very much appreciate the help that we get from the United States. They've been very helpful, but I think that the United States should actually increase its support for human rights activists, NGOs, and the independent press to bring about democracy in Zimbabwe.

What do you think is going to happen in Zimbabwe?

Sam Nkomo: I can only speak from experience, having been in the liberation struggle myself. I spent 15 years in [Ian] Smith's prisons. My view is that there is no way that you can stop an idea. The yearning for freedom has started, and nobody can stop it. It will happen. My prayer is that it doesn't happen violently, like it did during Smith, that we will lose fewer people than we lost during Smith's time.

Bill Saidi: I agree with Sam that change will definitely come. It has happened in Zambia and Malawi and in Kenya. It won't be different here.

My last question takes us back to where we started. How secure is your paper given the fact the you spent the last half hour criticizing President Mugabe?

Sam Nkomo: From the perspective of management, I can't tell you about tomorrow. I don't know. But I can safely say, when the paper was closed I told my staff 'we are in the hands in God.' We have no control over anything. We can simply go about our business and trust that He will see us through.

Bill Saidi: I agree with Sam that we are all in God's hands. I think that the future of Zimbabwe itself has to be linked to the future of the Daily News. What the Daily News has done is to bring a new kind of journalism. I have seen this in many countries. People see it as something which has almost a missionary kind of spirituality.

What we are saying is that the people of Zimbabwe deserve something better than they are getting. The independence of Zimbabwe should mean more than what it means today. It should mean more than suffering, hunger and persecution.

There's no way Mugabe can stand up and say "I've done for you what I promised." I don't think he can say that. Every journalist I know of the independent press knows that the struggle is going to be tough, but we've got a genuine cause. A genuine cause for the people of Zimbabwe where we can talk of independence as beautiful. It is not beautiful today, not at all.

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