Lessons from Zimbabwe's press

The independent newspapers bitterly regret the too-easy ride the press gave Robert Mugabe and his party for many years.

IT IS NOT OFTEN that a bill before the Zimbabwean parliament (where Zanu-PF currently holds 147 of the 150 seats) makes the dot.com world sit up, but that was exactly the effect of the bill recently rammed through giving the president power to read any citizen's private e-mails. The intention was to force internet service providers (ISPs) to give the government the private e-mail addresses it needs for Mugabe's much-feared Central Intelligence Organisation to hack into. This is unlikely to work with the South African ISPs that some Zimbabweans use, but local providers such as samara, africaonline and telconet could hardly resist. The bill is completely unconstitutional, of course, but such trifles do not bother Mugabe. It is now sensible to assume that all e-mail to Zimbabwe can be read by the security services. Quite clearly, tyrants around the world may be tempted to follow suit - which is why the situation is being closely watched.


The Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) is government-controlled which means that it is not only utterly parochial but that it doesn't carry Opposition views. During the February campaign on the constititutional referendum the Opposition parties could not get their advertisements broadcast until the last few days, despite a court order instructing the ZBC to allow them airtime. The flavour of the ZBC is perhaps best conveyed by the little feature, "This day in history", which runs after the news. It celebrates such worldshaking events as the election of Comrade Mugabe to one of the vice-presidencies of the non-aligned movement and the ending of the period of official mourning for Comrade Mugabe's first wife, Sally. The history of Zimbabwe before Mugabe came to power doesn't really exist for this programme, except of course for the liberation struggle led by Comrade Mugabe.


The government-controlled press - especially the daily Zimbabwe Herald and the Sunday Mail - are much the same. The Mail is almost a collector's item in its wild anti-white rage. American coverage in a recent issue consisted of a report entitled "These people's blood boils whenever they see a nigger". This turned out to be all about the "police killer squads" which roam America shooting blacks: "The system is such that the moment they see a black, particularly a young black male, their blood boils, and one has to avoid even eye contact. It is like dogs trained to kill." Coverage of Britain is somewhat similar with Tony Blair, Peter Hain and gay activists all lumped together as "the re-colonisation lobby".


But in the last few years a vigorous independent press has appeared which castigates Mugabe and his cronies. The Zimbabwe Independent, the Standard and the Financial Gazette all began appearing as weeklies, changing the whole tenor of debate. There is no doubting the courage of the independent journalists - two, Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto of the Standard, were arrested and tortured last year for reporting alleged stirrings of mutiny in the army. But the key moment came just a year ago with the launch of the Daily News, edited by Jeff Nyarota, which has taken on the Herald head to head and hits the streets every day. In the week following the referendum No vote - Mugabe's biggest setback to date - sales of the Daily News surged 23 per cent. These papers circulate mainly in the towns but old copies filter gradually into the rural areas where they are avidly read.


One of the most impressive qualities of the independent papers is that they really are independent. Currently they tend to be sympathetic to the principal Opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change, and its leader Morgan Tsvangirai, but they insist that if the MDC wins they will keep their critical distance. For they have learnt their lessons the hard way: they bitterly regret the too-easy ride the press gave Mugabe and his party for many years after independence in the interests of nation-building.


"We thought we were being patriotic, but they just took it for granted and put their hands deeper in the till. Our forbearance earned us nothing," one journalist commented bitterly. "When we did at last begin to criticise they were furious - and it was too late."


But opposition-minded Zimbabweans are hungry for more and the arrival of the internet has meant that articles critical of Mugabe from the British press now circulate furiously around the country's e-mail circuit. It is probably this traffic above all which has provoked Mugabe into his current attempt to control e-mail, for if there is anyone he loathes more than gays, it is the British.