Interview with Geoff Nyarota

'Thanks to the extreme efforts of our staff we have not missed a single day's publication since the bombing'.

How did you come to be a journalist?
I always wanted to be a journalist, but in colonial Rhodesia the only job open to educated Africans was teaching. So I became a teacher in Inyanga near the border. This was in the mid-1970s and the war was on. Teachers were the focal point for Zanu support and contact; we used to get money and clothes through to the Zanla guerrillas. In 1977 there was a firefight between the Rhodesian forces and Zanla in the grounds of the school. Several children were killed and the school was closed down. Then I saw that the Herald had advertised for 12 trainees and for the first time they were opening up recruitment to blacks. There were four blacks and eight whites. I qualified in 1978.

Wasn't the Herald simply the mouthpiece of Ian Smith?
It was often sympathetic to Smith, but also expressed a broader range of white opinion. It was not a propaganda mouthpiece and sometimes the Smith government censored it. The Herald would print blank pages in protest. I was quickly seconded to another paper, the National Observer that was meant to cater for the black market. At independence in 1980, I was recruited by the ministry of information, as an information officer at State House for President Canaan Banana. But after six months I realised I had made a cardinal error of judgement. I was, at heart, a journalist not a PRO man. Very soon I was back with Zimpapers, the government holding group, which had taken 51 per cent control of the press. I was invited to become editor of the Manica Post, a weekly in Mutare, with the mission of trying to broaden its appeal. In 15 months, the Post's circulation increased from 5,000 to 13,000 and I was promoted in April 1983 to edit the Chronicle in Bulawayo, the country's number two paper.

Didn't the Chronicle break the Willowvale scandal in 1988?
Yes. We had information from the Willowvale motor assembly plant, which was 51 per cent government-owned, that politicians were abusing a scheme that entitled them to get Mazdas and Toyotas ahead of ordinary people. At that time there was a tremendous shortage of vehicles and politicians were given priority because they needed transport to visit their constituencies. But some were buying a new vehicle from the plant in the morning, say a Toyota Cressida for $30,000, and then selling it in the afternoon for $115,000. Many of them had almost ceased to be politicians and had become full-time car dealers. We knew of MPs and even ministers who had already sold more than a dozen cars each. One of the major culprits was Enos Nkala, who was then minister of defence and also the acting minister of home affairs. Nkala reacted very sharply when we published our first story. He told me, "shelve the investigation immediately or I'll have you arrested" and referred to me publicly as "little Nyarota".

Was the Chronicle the only paper carrying this news?
Yes. The Herald would not touch it. As a result hundreds of people would queue up in Harare to buy what was normally seen as a provincial paper of little interest to the capital. After Nkala's threats we decided to publish the rest of the story. All hell broke loose after that. We were denounced by Mugabe himself, who said "I was overzealous". We came under enormous pressure from both sides. Many people believed that Sally Mugabe, the president's first wife, was deeply involved in the scandal and offered us all sorts of gossip. She may have been but we had no evidence to back the claim so we did not publish anything about her. People were very disappointed and accused me of being a sell-out. I don't think they understood that journalism depends on having proper evidence.

A few months later, in January 1989, I was asked to leave the Chronicle "for your own safety" and was booted upstairs to be the public relations executive for the Zimpapers Group, which actually meant being stuck in a little office on my own and forgotten. Elias Rusike was the executive responsible for this. However, not long afterwards, he and two associates acquired the Financial Gazette, the first non-government paper, and in January 1990 he asked me to be its editor.

Was that successful?
Pretty soon we had queues all over the place for the FinGaz. It was a weekly and would sell out by 11am on the day of publication because again it was the only paper willing to tell the truth. Despite an increased cover price, circulation jumped from some 10,000 to 18,000 in 18 months. Then in June 1991, while on a trip to Scandinavia, I heard that Rusike had fired me. "The staff aren't with you," he said. I knew this was untrue and challenged him in court.

What had happened was that Rusike wanted to buy a printing press for FinGaz, but to do so he needed a government allocation of foreign exchange. The government's condition was that he fire me. My lawyers told me that if I took another job I would lose my case against Rusike. This meant a very miserable period of two years unemployment while I fought the case. In 1993 he settled out of court in my favour. Incidentally many of the FinGaz staff who were allegedly unhappy with me flocked to work with me again when the Daily News was set up.

Was it then that you began to think about setting up the Daily News?
I had now been fired twice for telling the truth and it was quite clear that any paper that did so would come under almost unbearable pressure from the Mugabe government. But it was equally clear that there was a tremendous market for a newspaper that was willing to tell the truth. To do that job properly it needed to be a daily paper and I needed a sufficient stake in to make it unlikely that I would be sacked again for doing my job properly. But while I dreamt those dreams the fact was that I was now virtually unemployable in Zimbabwean journalism, so I joined the Nordic SADC Journalism Centre in Maputo and travelled all over southern Africa running training programmes for journalists. It was very worthwhile work and I did it until 1999. But from early 1997 onwards I began to work in earnest on plans to set up the Daily News.

What did that involve?
With directors including myself, Much Masunda (now the Daily News chief executive), Derek Smail, one of our biggest investors and Stuart Mattinson (chairman), Judith Todd and Ndaba Mpofu. We set up Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) in July 1998. There were several others who have come and gone, but they were the core group. We tried hard to raise money for a new independent daily. Many people were extremely enthusiastic since the situation in the country was deteriorating and the need for such a newspaper was ever more apparent. However, just three weeks before the March 31 launch, the government arrested the Standard journalists Ray Choto and Mark Chavunduka and tortured them very badly. This frightened people to death, particularly since the government actually justified the torture. The threat to independent journalism was obvious. As a result many of our would-be investors evaporated into thin air and we had to launch the paper in a severely under-capitalised state. For the first nine months that was our overwhelming problem and the paper very nearly crashed around New Year 2000. Our initial estimates of circulation had been over ambitious and of course our cost projections had made no allowance for 70 per cent inflation a year.

So what saved you?
The constitutional referendum of February 2000 changed everything. It showed what a huge appetite there was for change in the country. The Daily News and the independent-mindedness that it projected symbolised that change. Our circulation soared while that of the Herald crashed. The trouble was that by the same token the government now felt a great deal more insecure and as the parliamentary elections of June 2000 approached, the threat to the Daily News became increasingly clear. We were a constant object of ministerial attack and we had our first bomb blast which destroyed the shop underneath the newspaper building. Then in last July came the strange "assassination attempt" against me.

What happened?
A chap called Bernard Masara came into the building, went up in the lift with me and then broke down and confessed that he was a CIO agent with a mission to assassinate me that he could not go through with. We published the whole story, but then he had to go into hiding and we had to look after him for fear of something happening to him. But his demands became more and more extortionate and when he didn't get all he wanted, he again threatened to kill me and Much Masunda. Eventually we concluded that this had been a cunning way of tying up our time, resources and nervous energy. The fact that Masara's CIO colleagues made no move against him suggested that he was still on their payroll. In the end we sued him for extortion and are awaiting the judgment in that case.

On January 28 your printing presses were bombed.
Yes, just two days after the minister of information, Jonathan Moyo had threatened to put us out of business and directly after the "war vets" leader Chenjerai Hunzvi had said the same thing. That bombing could only have been carried out with military expertise and equipment. Naturally the government "investigation" has got nowhere at all and they have not even bothered to keep us informed as to its "findings". Thanks to the extreme efforts of our staff we have managed to keep going and have not missed a single day's publication despite the bombing. But we have been reduced to a paper of 24 pages with a maximum print run of 70,000 copies, whereas before that we often had 48 pages and were selling up to 120,000 copies. Even this can only be achieved by printing on two or three different presses and by collating all the copies by hand - an immense job.

Zanu-PF insiders seem to be astonished that the independent press has carried on despite the bombings. Are they now threatening to kill journalists?
Moyo recently told one of our reporters to her face that they are going to start targeting individual journalists. It is really a terrible situation. Almost the worst of it is that Moyo does not seem to realise quite how serious it is that a cabinet minister should be openly making threats of that kind. It is not just ruthless but reckless.

So what can you do?
Not a great deal. Neither Much Masunda nor I have bodyguards. We are simply careful about what we do, where we go and at what time. We talk to our reporters and try as hard as possible to sympathise with them and to see things their way. But it is very difficult to see how you can protect a reporter who is going out to do a story about war vets on a farm. Already war vets have assaulted one of our reporters. But our greatest problem remains money. Ever since the bombing we have been losing revenue at the rate of Z$30 million a month. We can't take all the advertising we want to and we can't sell as many papers as we need to, even though the demand is there. That means that we can't afford to pay our journalists as much as we would like to and naturally enough their families exert pressure on them and ask, is it really worth taking the risks you do? But the staff have been wonderful. This is a team effort, not a one-man band.

The government charged you twice in May with criminal defamation, for stories about the president's involvement in the building of the new airport and the US legal judgment against him.
These cases are at an early stage but they are very serious. If you are found guilty of defamation in a civil suit you can be fined. But the offence of criminal defamation, which many legal experts don't think should exist at all, means that you can be sentenced to anything up to life imprisonment.

What future do you see for yourself?
At the beginning of the year, I was diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure. My doctor said this was caused by stress and that I must avoid stress as far as possible. What can I do? Two bombings and an assassination attempt in ten months don't exactly make for a peaceful life. It made me realise that the day would come when I would have to stop. Until then I think I had always assumed that I would go on forever.

What is the future for the independent press?
Very difficult. It is quite clear that the Mugabe government will stop at nothing to defeat the demand for change. Of course they try to depict us as an MDC paper, which we are not. We are rigorously independent and we have frequently criticised the Movement for Democratic Change. Given the economic situation and the fact that we have a year to go before the presidential election, I am afraid things are bound to get worse, probably a great deal worse, before there is any chance they can get better. From our point of view, the most important thing is a new printing press, so that we can get back to the number of copies and the size of paper that will allow us to make a profit. But we have no intention of stopping what we have begun. I dreamt of an independent daily paper like this for years and I have been privileged to live my dream.