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Wednesday, 9 January, 2002, 19:17 GMT
The perils of reporting in Zimbabwe
Bombed printing press of Daily News
A bomb destroyed the Daily News printing press in 2001
Joseph Winter

All journalists are used to working in stressful environments - fuming editors wondering why deadlines have been missed, conducting interviews in war zones, the list is endless.

But working in Zimbabwe in the past few years, and especially the past few months, has stretched the meaning of "stress" to new levels.

Long before I was forced to leave Zimbabwe a year ago, many parts of the country had become no-go areas for non-state journalists.

Newspaper billboards
Zimbabwe's media is sharply divided
From the beginning of the invasion of white-owned farms in February 2000, most of the self-styled war veterans refused to speak to us, wielding their clubs and machetes menacingly at the sight of our pens and microphones.

BBC guidelines state clearly: "No story is worth risking your life for".

I am not a hero and wholeheartedly agree.

News black-out

We had no choice but to speak to those who would speak to us - the farmers and government ministers or war veteran leaders based in Harare.

Then the Information Minister Jonathan Moyo introduced a "non-co-operation" policy.

Only the state-owned media were invited to government news conferences.

Information Minister Jonathan Moyo
Moyo only speaks to the state media

When the body of the Congolese President, Laurent Kabila, was brought to Harare a year ago, foreign correspondents were not allowed to cover a major international story.

We stood waiting for hours outside the army barracks where he was lying in state, despite being invited by the Congolese ambassador.

One journalist with the Daily News managed to bluff her way through with an old press card from the state news agency.

But she was soon recognised and was given a military escort back to the front gate.

Anonymous

All requests for government comment or interviews now have to go through Mr Moyo's office.

But he and his officials never answer their phones.

Or if they do, it is only to bark: "Call me back later".

Of course, some ministers do still talk to the foreign and private press.

But even they are now wary of Mr Moyo's influence with President Robert Mugabe and most insist on remaining anonymous.

Protecting the source of information is important everywhere as "whistle-blowers" can face the sack.

But in Zimbabwe, it could spell death.

I only spoke to moderate Zanu-PF officials in person, never on the phone.

Turgid

Colleagues still in Harare say they now use the state media - The Herald and ZBC radio and television - as their main source of government information.

And this means they are forced to sit through some of the most turgid broadcasting ever produced.

"His Excellency the president, Comrade Robert Mugabe has opened a dam in Mashonaland Central Province... "

'Kill the terorrists' placard
Journalists and the opposition have been threatened

"The opposition MDC have been denounced as traitors... "

"A British plot has been uncovered... "

At first, it can be quite amusing in an odd way.

But sitting through an hour of this each evening quickly drives you mad.

Especially when you become the target of the abuse.

"Western journalists have been criticised for giving a negative portrayal of the government... "

I tried to ignore this form of psychological pressure while I was there but after a few months it did start to wear me down.

Different route

More recently, six named journalists were called "terrorists" - to be dealt with like the United States was dealing with Taleban.

The on-going political violence provides ample evidence that this threat was very real.

One journalist said that he expected to see a mob of government militants waiting for him outside his house.

They never came but he has changed his daily routine and takes a different route home from his office every day.

Another is concerned that his car may be tampered with, by the feared Central Intelligence Organisation, seeking to liquidate an "enemy of the state".

He takes his car to a different mechanic every time it needs a service.

Internet revolution

Difficult as it is now, the government's proposed new measures would make it impossible to work as a journalist.

Publishing stories about cabinet meetings based on ministerial sources - the basis of political reporting the world over - could lead to a prison term.

One media organisation would not be allowed to quote another without permission - so The Herald could not be used as a substitute for government comment.

And journalists accredited with one news organisation could not work for another without the approval of the information ministry.

Mr Moyo is apparently hoping that the "information age" will pass Zimbabwe by.

But the internet and mobile telephones have already swept through Harare and so news will always seep out, whatever laws the government passes.


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09 Jan 02 | Africa
08 Jan 02 | Africa
24 Feb 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
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