16 October 2002

Zimbabwe: I Never Thought I Would Be A Journalist - Sandra Nyaira


Washington, DC — Sandra Nyaira, political editor of the Daily News, one of Zimbabwe's toughest independent journalistic voices, receives a 'Courage in Journalism' award this week from the International Women's Media Foundation (IWMF). At 27 she is Zimbabwe's youngest-ever political editor.

"She works amid almost daily harassment in a country with one of the worst press freedom records in the world," said the Foundation in a statement announcing the award.

Nyaira is one of three recipients of the IWMF award this year. The other two are Associated Press correspondent Kathy Gannon for her reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and Anna Politkovskaya of the independent Russian newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, for her reporting on the war in Chechnya.

Since its launch two years ago, Zimbabwe's Daily News has been consistently critical of President Mugabe, his government, and the ruling party - the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF). As a result, the newspaper has been under almost constant attack. Most dramatically, just a few weeks before Zimbabwe's March 2001 presidential elections, the Bulawayo offices of the News were petrol bombed in the early morning hours. The paper's vendor's have been beaten on the street. In April 2001, Nyaira, another reporter and the editor-in-chief of the Daily News were arrested and charged with "criminal defamation" because of articles she wrote accusing senior members of the government of corruption.

Zimbabwe Information Minister Jonathan Moyo has blasted the Daily News for defiling "traditional norms" and attempting to undermine the country's values. "This is no longer the freedom of expression," he was quoted as saying last June. "The time has come to defend our values, culture and indeed humanity... for decent people to put a stop to this madness. We will start raising questions to those that advertise in papers that insult our dignity as Africans"

Tough new laws, enacted after President Mugabe's election victory, place a threat of two-years imprisonment over the heads of all independent journalists in Zimbabwe. Nonetheless, says Nyaira, although she stumbled into news reporting, she is in it for the long haul. Fighting to sustain independence in journalism is one of Zimbabwe's best hopes, she said in an interview with AllAfrica. Excerpts:

After the election, the government enacted two laws which directly affect you and other journalists in Zimbabwe: The Access to Information Act which licensees to journalists are given by the government, and the Public Order and Security Bill, which criminalizes false statements that are prejudicial to the state. What does this mean for journalists, and you in particular as a journalist who sometimes seems a special target of the government's anger with the press?

The government is basically trying to muzzle the independent media; trying to make sure that at least we don't write as many critical articles about the president himself because that Public Order and Security Act actually inhibits people from writing anything bad about the president or from saying anything that they [government] considers not in order. They are trying to scare you off from writing about real issues. It is very essential for journalists to expose corruption, mismanagement of the economy, violation of human rights and related issues. So what these laws mean is that this is a government that is basically insecure and wants to use everything in their power to stop the media from writing about them.

What about the status of your own court case, your suit against Information Minister Jonathan Moyo?

This has been pending since before the elections. The courts for some reason have been very quiet about the whole issue. But then I got a scholarship from the British Council to leave the country for one year to do my Masters degree and just before I left - boom! - they give us a date to go to court in September. I just couldn't believe it. So my lawyer went to the judge, Hilda Mungwira, to make an application asking for a postponement because I was going to school out of the country and that I could not afford to wait for this court case. She said fine, that she would look into it. As my days for going to school drew nearer she finally said that she could not postpone the case. My lawyer was basically saying I should give evidence before I go and the rest of the case could be finished while I was away in school. But she refused and said she couldn't do that. She said she would have to wait until next year when I come back.

Can the government keep you out of Zimbabwe, prevent you from returning?,

You never know. But Zimbabwe is my country and I don't think they can stop me from going in. It's not like someone from outside, but you really never know what they can do.

Will you talk some about how a young woman like yourself got involved in journalism and how you moved from the government-owned Zimbabwe Inter-African News Agency (Ziana) to a paper like the Daily News?

I never thought I would be a journalist in my life. When I was growing up, in high school, my father was very, very tough on me. I was very bad in mathematics. So he didn't want me involved in any extra-curricular activities. He wanted me to have as many extra lessons as possible.

Then one day, my classmates were invited to go to career day workshops at the Harare Polytechnic and the University of Zimbabwe. They went; I did not because I had to do an extra lesson in mathematics. And when they came back they were telling me about this wonderful studio that they had seen at Harare Polytechnic. I was so much in love with music and as they were telling me about the studio I could picture the studio and I fell in love with this studio that I had never seen before. I said to myself: I want to be a journalist; I want to be a radio journalist.

When I finished high school I then applied to Harare Polytechnic, and they asked me to come for an interview. They accepted me, but when I got there I decided to do print journalism instead of radio journalism. And that's how I got into the journalism world.

My first job was with a government organization - the Community Newspapers of Zimbabwe. I left after three or four months. The editor and chief of Ziana asked me if I was interested in a job there. I was, and so I went and worked for Ziana from 1996 to 1999. It was quite a challenging job.

I must say that Ziana was one of the very few independent organizations in Zimbabwe. It was as if it was not a government-controlled organization. The government was not very much involved in the running of Ziana. The old Ziana used to be a very good news agency, actually one of the best news agencies in Africa. The editor-in-chief was a very nice person, a very hard-working person, Henry Muradzikwa. He let us do our stories. There was no censorship, nothing like that.

Then the government realized that Ziana was actually writing critical stories, which were getting out to the world. And so when Jonathan Moyo came in [as Information Minister] he decided to dismantle it. He fired the editor-in-chief and so many other editors. They were basically angry at Ziana for the simple reason of telling it like it is, telling the other side of the story. They wanted them to tell just one side of the story. And right now, Ziana, of all the state-controlled news agencies, is still in a quandary. Sometimes the reporters go for months without salary.

So when the Daily news was formed in 1999, I was the bureau chief for Ziana in Manicaland...

You were also the youngest bureau chief for Ziana.

Yes. I guess I had very good bosses. They taught us to come up with good stories ahead of all the others. They also realized that I was doing a better job than my male counterparts, especially in Manicaland. I remember covering one occasion -- a Zimbabwe Farmers Union person who was very critical of the government. It was late, and they just couldn't believe how I could come up with a story so much faster than all the other journalists in the area. It was because of sheer hard work and really wanting to be recognized as a woman. When you are a woman journalist, you have to work twice as hard - much more harder than your male counterparts.

I was going to ask you how different was it being a woman journalist?

It was really difficult. Being a woman you have to first and foremost meet the challenges of a male-dominated newsroom. Sometimes in terms of giving out assignments, the attitude was that as a woman you are not up to doing it. But I had a very good boss. On my first Ziana assignment I was sent out with a male reporter. We went, and he was asked to do his own story. I did my own story, which was much better than his. And my story was the one that was sent out on the wires at the end of the day. And after dealing with challenges in the newsroom you had to deal with the rest of the country and the rest of the world, which was also patriarchal. It was not easy being a woman.

You wind up leaving Ziana and going to the Daily News.

Yes, when it was launched in 1999. When we went there, things did not move as smoothly as we had expected. The paper was supposed to be launched, like today but then it was not launched. Tomorrow it was not launched. Some other times we would go without salaries. But we just stuck with the Daily News and said what we wanted was an alternative voice, a voice that would be able to tell the other side of the story that was not being told by the state media. They write so many falsehoods with impunity; they get away with it! Basically for the interests of those who are in power.

In going over to the Daily News, you start to emerge as kind of a tough voice watching the government, a critical, analytical reporting voice which brings you into conflict with the Central Intelligence Organization and other government agencies. Would you say you came into the business naïve?

When I became a journalist, I thought it was going to be an interesting profession where everything would be so much easier. When you are a journalist, I thought, you get your way. But I've really seen so many things happening in my country, so much corruption within the government, within the public sector. They are supposed to deliver but they don't deliver. It was so painful to see how they would even try to muzzle the media, to quell the story, even the violence in the run up to the election and the retributions after the election.

It is really painful to know that this is a society that you have always looked up to and when you went to journalism school you were not taught at all on how to deal with such conflict situations. It was another world, a completely new world for me. I had to learn as I went into it and I had to learn fast. It meant growing up so much faster than you expected.

In 2001 you were arrested - you and your editor - for 'criminal defamation'.

That was the first time I have had anything like that.

What happened? What were the circumstances of that arrest and case?

The circumstances of the arrest were that I had stumbled across information about this man called Hani Yamani. He was the owner of a huge company called Air Harbour Technologies, and he was contracted by the Zimbabwe government to construct a new terminal at the Harare International Airport.

This man had spent millions of dollars before he got that tender, to grease the government machinery, basically government ministers, senior, senior people within Robert Mugabe's government, like [former Minister of Public Construction amd National Housing, Enos] Chikowore and [Speaker of Parliament, Emmerson] Mnangagwa - very powerful people. It was really a big story.

This guy [Yamani] was saying, alleging, that Robert Mugabe knew that these people were taking bribes to ensure that the project went to him. Also part of the story was that Kofi Annan's son was also a part of Air Harbour Technologies. [Yamani] even gave me a copy of the letter he wrote to the president. So what I then did was work on a story with my colleagues and did an investigation into the whole issue and that this letter was actually written to president Mugabe and that he knew about all this corruption and underhanded dealings but never said anything.

Then Jonathan Moyo, who said I should not have linked the president to corruption, had us [Nyaira along with Daily News Editor-in-Chief Geoff Nyarota, and reporter Julius Zava] taken to the police station where we spent a number of hours there saying we stood by our story. The police told us we would be prosecuted, but they haven't done so up to now. We don't know what they are thinking. It's just hanging over our heads; we don't know what their next move is.

And somewhere along the way you decide to sue Jonathan Moyo, why?

I had attended a housewarming party for someone who later became a Zanu-PF MP. I knew his wife and family from Manicaland when I was working for Ziana, and they invited me to come over to their housewarming party. I was the only journalist who was there. I was invited in my personal capacity, but because I was working on Sunday and we had no story, I took the Daily News driver and the photographer and said, 'We should just go out and see what happens; maybe we will get some stories along the way.'

At the party there was Vice President Joseph Msika. He gave a speech in which he was asking [expelled former Zanu-PF secretary-general] Edgar Tekere to come back to the Zanu-PF (Mugabe's ruling party). 'Can't you see what the MDC [opposition Movement for Democratic Change] is doing? The country that you fought for is just about to be taken away by these British imperialists.' He was sort of like pleading with this guy [Tekere] to please come back to the party.

Jonathan Moyo had not seen that I was there. I just took out my notebook -- you don't ignore a good story just because you're at someone's housewarming party -- and I wrote that story. It was the lead story in my paper on Monday. Jonathan Moyo just burst out so much. It was just two days before Zanu-PF announced that Robert Mugabe was going to stand again as their candidate, so I guess he thought the story was not in favor of them because it would look like Zanu-PF was very desperate for this man to come back.

So [Moyo] just lied and said I was not telling the truth. I took my notebook and looked at all my notes and read them back to myself and I said, 'am I a crazy person?' No. This is what this man said. I got so sick I didn't know what to do. You feel like this is the end of your career; you say 'Why is this person doing this to me?'

The radio is a powerful medium; television is a powerful medium, and I don't have all of those things. There were no other journalists there to back up my story. But people who were there at the party called me and said just ignore him [Moyo], he's a crazy person. But this man had gone on television to denounce me; he had gone on radio. He was using national institutions, public money to attack individual journalists because he wants to harass you and to intimidate you to stop you from writing critical articles.

And then from nowhere I received a call from our Mutare office saying Edgar Tekere has issued a statement actually saying that the story that you wrote is almost exactly true to what Mr. Msika said. And Joseph Msika never complained; up to now he has not complained. After that I decided to sue the Herald [the government newspaper] and Jonathan Moyo because it was not fair for them to do that to me because I had written a true account of what had happened. It's still in the court.

Let me ask you, when you look ahead, what do you see? Continued harassment of journalists like yourself or some easing of the pressure that appears to be on the press in Zimbabwe?

What we have agreed on as people in the independent media is that we have to unite and continue fighting. I know it's going to be difficult for us to win the war because these people are all so powerful. And you know that people who are power hungry, who want to maintain this hold on power, can do anything to make sure that the independent voice is muzzled. So it's a bit tricky for me to know what is going to happen because anything can happen today or tomorrow.

I would be remiss not to ask you about the situation in Zimbabwe in terms of the food crisis and what seems from Washington, DC to be the politicization of it?

Zanu-PF knows that through the use of food aid they will be able to gain some votes at the grassroots level because people are hungry. People have no food in the rural areas. The United Nations through the WFP (World Food Programme), which is basically responsible for giving out the food, has been adamant in saying that Zanu-PF should not be involved in distributing that food. It should be given to non-political organizations.

But from time to time you do have people from Zanu-PF who come out in the open and say the food will be given to people who do not support the Zanu-PF. It's like trying to punish people for supporting the opposition. Robert Mugabe himself comes out and says, 'No, we are going to give food to everyone, even those who voted against us, even those who are used by British imperialists'. But on the ground they try as much as possible to deprive those from the opposition.

Since Robert Mugabe himself is not a young man, who is in the wings? What do you expect politically as Robert Mugabe moves off the scene, the political stage? Who will emerge -- is emerging?

It is a pretty tricky situation. The politics of Zanu-PF is quite tricky. People would have readily accepted a person like Simba Makoni [the former Finance and Economic Development Minister] to take over from him, but, you know, Robert Mugabe has kept this tight leash on this issue of succession, as if he is indispensable. So there is not even that debate inside Zanu-PF itself, you know, that Robert Mugabe is going to go one day and we need someone to take over from him.

Who is going to take over is sort of like shrouded in secrecy. We don't know. Emmerson Mnangagwa has been touted as one of the blue-eyed boys who might take over from Robert Mugabe. There has also been the name of [Defense Minister] Sydney Sekeremayi; so many names, but Robert Mugabe has made sure that Zanu-PF does not address this issue. It is debated in the media, but not in Zanu-PF. They can only talk about it in the pubs or when they are alone, away from prying ears, but when they get to their Zanu-PF congresses, there is nothing on the agenda. No one can dare talk about it. They end up in political Siberia.

You are off to a year's study in Britain. Do you plan to return to Zimbabwe? Do you plan to return as a journalist to Zimbabwe?

Certainly I will go back to my country. I don't think that I will be able to survive in the Diaspora. My life is in Zimbabwe. I love journalism and I can't trade it in for anything else. So I'll have to go back home and finish the work that we started at the Daily News. I must actually say that working for the Daily News has been one of the greatest reliefs of my frustrations. And I must salute its readers in Zimbabwe. They are brave to go out there and buy the newspaper and read it to their families, even in the rural areas where it has been banned by Zanu-PF. I would be letting them down if I didn't go back home.


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