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Friday, 23 February, 2001, 10:58 GMT
The BBC's Joseph Winter quizzed

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Joseph Winter, the BBC correspondent in Zimbabwe for the past four years, fled the country this week.

After having his work permit unexpectedly revoked by the authorities, a gang tried to enter his home last Saturday. He took refuge with his family in the British High Commission in Harare. He then flew to South Africa and from there to Britain.

A journalist from a South African newspaper was also expelled this week. In January the premises of the Daily News newspaper were bombed.

Why did he fall out of favour with the authorities? What is happening in Zimbabwe? How does he feel about his expulsion?

Joseph Winter joined us and answered some of your questions in a live forum.


Shola Amole, London:

How did you really feel and what was going on in your mind whilst these people came banging on your door? Also I must tell you that your little girl so cute and I am just curious to know how old she is?

Joseph Winter:

I will take the second part first because it is easier - my little daughter Enti, she is 20 months old and she slept all the way through that whole ordeal - she is running around and nothing has fazed her really.

I was very afraid. I knew there was something to be afraid of but to be honest I didn't have time or possibly I didn't want to think about it, but in any case I didn't really consider what exactly I was afraid of. Obviously there was this group of men, presumably from the secret police, the central intelligence organisation, who were banging away on my door, trying to break in through the kitchen door and I was very afraid but not of anything specific.

The other thing was that I was frantically making telephone calls - I was phoning up the lawyers, the British High Commission, journalists - anyone I could think of. Lots of the numbers working at 2 o'clock in the morning and not everyone was answering their phone. So my priority was to make phonecalls to as many different people as possible.

Adrian Chiappe, London, UK:

Did the authorities give you any logical or meaningful justification at all for expelling you? Are there many other western journalists operating in Harare now?

Joseph Winter:

Again I will take the second part first. There is less than 10 foreign journalists who were actually based in Zimbabwe at the moment. One other has been told to leave within 24 hours - to be honest I haven't heard the latest about her - her name is Mercedes Ziages - she works for a South African newspaper. When I left she was still there but we both had court orders allowing us to stay until tomorrow but the authorities certainly didn't want to obey that in my case and it was just safer for me to run away. I am not sure about her.

There is talk of new regulations which people are expecting to be published tomorrow and which might force all foreign journalists to leave the country. As regards he justification for their actions, what the immigration officials told me was that regulations for accrediting all foreign journalists had been changed and therefore all work permits issued under the old regulations had been cancelled. Everyone had 24 hours to leave the country and could then re-apply. That is the only official explanation I personally received face-to-face from an official.

However, since then the government has gone into spin - overdrive accusing me of corruptly or fraudulently obtaining a letter in order to renew my work permit which was just renewed three weeks before they took this action. I hear yesterday, the Justice Minister was even accusing me of helping the Angolan rebel movement - the UNITA. All of that is complete rubbish. I went through exactly the same procedure for renewing my work permit as I always have done. I was astonished when they told me I had 24 hours to leave the country just three weeks after renewing my work permit.

Daniel Makina, Pretoria, SA:

I was in Harare the weekend your troubles began. I remember when I first met you in 1996 or 1997 and you were quite enthusiastic about Zimbabwe - you even looked surprised when I was sceptical about the country's prospects. Could you say my scepticism is now vindicated?

Joseph Winter:

Daniel is a friend of mine - we play tennis together. He has recently left the country as have a lot of other professionals - trying to find more money abroad. He was predicting a civil war - a Somalia-type situation - that was a few months ago. Then, and even now, I think a civil war is possibly is too pessimistic. But throughout this ordeal I kept saying they are not going to give me 24 hours to leave the country and then they did. Then I said - they are not going to break my door down in the middle of the night and drag us out - and they certainly tried to. So I am going to give up making any predictions about what is going to happen in Zimbabwe and maybe Daniel is better placed than me.

Jeddie Bere, Zimbabwe:

What is really happening in my country that I do not know about?

Joseph Winter:

It seems that the government of Robert Mugabe, in my opinion anyway, is desperate to win these next elections whether they are held next year as scheduled or whether he brings them forward and they are trying to ensure that they have the control of as many different sectors of society, of as many different institutions as possible. They see the media, they see the judicial system, the lawyers, the judges as sympathisers of the opposition and they are trying to get rid of people who they think sympathise with the opposition and replace them with people who they prefer and that is my analysis.

Jane Wilson, Brussels, Belgium:

Why do you think it is so important to Robert Mugabe to retain the presidency at any price?

Joseph Winter:

That is the question that everyone is asking. Some people point out that he has just celebrated his 77th birthday yesterday. He has a young family - he has children who are two or three years old. People should say he should just retire and relax with his family. He obviously says he wants to finish the revolution and he sees the land question as the remaining part of the revolution.

He achieved political independence 20 years ago which was really the main part of his struggle and now he wants to finish with that which he sees as redistributing land from whites to blacks. Possibly at one point he will be able to say he has achieved that and then he will resign. I think it is also about controlling what happens - if he was perfectly happy about who would follow him and that they would continue with that same ideological position and also there is talk of pursuing him for corruption and the massacre of people in the early 1980s in the south western region of Matebeleland. If he had some kind of immunity and was sure about the person who would succeed maybe that might encourage him to go as well.

John Smithe, Harare:

Would you say that press freedom is well and truly dead in Zimbabwe? What are the chances that the airwaves will be opened up anytime soon?

Joseph Winter:

The airwaves certainly the moment in Zimbabwe - there is four radio stations all owned by the state. There is one television station owned by the state. There is no chance that I see it that they are going to allow that to chance before these elections. There was a court order allowing them to free up the airwaves - they even brought in a Bill but the conditions attached to the Bill of setting up a radio station are just impossible - no one is going to do that. Whatever the court says they are going to ignore it - as you saw in my case and many others.

Press freedom - I wouldn't say it is dead - I have been kicked out but there are other foreign journalists still there. Even if those other foreign journalists are kicked out, there are four or five privately owned newspapers who are still running - even the Daily News whose printing press was bombed just three or four weeks ago - that is still being published every day. So if you go to Zimbabwe and buy newspapers, you will see extremely hard hitting, extremely critical articles written about the government. So I would say that with regard to press freedom - the government is trying to reduce it and restrain it but for the moment it is still there.

Jake Newman, London:

The economy is in tatters and the political situation is unstable but are the streets any less safe to walk than any other Third World African nation at the moment? Is the press coverage of the current situation in Zimbabwe just scare-mongering?

Joseph Winter:

On the question of press coverage - I think if you look at the coverage of any country in the world it is the negative things. If you talk about Britain you might think about mad cow disease, football hooligans or the Northern Ireland question - those are the issues most frequently covered in the press. News, as I see it, is by and large - bad news - what has gone wrong - whether it is about any country in the world.

But I would say that walking around the streets of Harare, by and large, is fairly safe and I do know that people have read articles and listened to my reports and other reports around the world by other journalists and come to this conclusion that if I go to Harare as soon as I step off the plane I would be beaten up and assaulted and that is not true. Maybe the press is at fault for only reporting bad news but I think that is generally what most journalists and most press seem to do for better or worse and for that to change will be very difficult.

We would have to change the mindsets of all the editors and managers and journalists around the world. Basically, I would say that Harare is a relatively safe place compared to a lot of other places not just in the Third World, certainly South Africa or Kenya or Nigeria, Abijan or Rio de Janiero or London, New York or Paris. I would say walking the streets is safer there. However, things are getting worse. The poverty is driving more people to crime - things like car-jacking, mugging, burglary is on the rise.

Andrew Brynes, London:

What in your view is the opinion of the average Zimbabwean who can only rely on his everyday experiences to inform him of the true state of affairs?

Joseph Winter:

I suppose you are talking about the political situation and there by and large to simplify matters there is a huge divide between people in urban areas who blame generally Robert Mugabe and the government for their declining living standards - the fact they can't afford to eat three meals a day - the fact they have to walk to work if they are lucky. The fact they don't have a job if they are unlucky. They blame what they see as the economic mismanagement of Robert Mugabe. People out in rural areas who don't have access to those free or privately owned newspapers I was talking about earlier as they are quite expensive - they would have a different outlook and they would be more inclined to believe what the government tells them that it is all part of a plot by the international community - international media even - in order to bring down the nationalist government of Robert Mugabe. Of course there are people in between but to simplify matters, I would say there is that kind of split between rural and urban Zimbabweans.

Kim Jooste, Surrey, UK:

Now that the "western world" seems to be getting involved in matters, what is the outlook on the future elections in Zimbabwe?

Joseph Winter:

As I said earlier, I think the outlook is a violent one - if not a violent one, certainly a repressive and intimidating one for those elections whenever they happen. The international community has been involved from the beginning - certainly from before the last elections last year.

I think at the moment, Zimbabwe is largely cut off from most of the western powers - from Britain and America. They are trying to move closer to France but I can't see France getting too close to Zimbabwe at the moment. This really leaves the countries around Zimbabwe, in particular South Africa - I think South Africa is a key country. At the moment they are supplying electricity almost for free, they are helping Zimbabwe to a great extent to get in oil, petrol and fuel. Some people are saying that South Africa should cut off all those lines - the opposition MDC is saying that. But that would be a disaster socially for Zimbabwe - there would be no electricity, no fuel, no foreign currency - that would be very, very harsh for them. That would be a very hard step for Thabo Mbeki, the South African president, to take and it seems that he is worried about destroying Zimbabwe. If he took that step Zimbabwe would just collapse immediately and he would be flooded immediately by hundreds of thousands of refugees. So I think that South Africa is the country at the moment that has the most influence on what happens over the next few months in Zimbabwe.

Tim, Johannesburg, South Africa:

Do you think Mbeki's policy of "quiet diplomacy" with regard to Zimbabwe is achieving anything at all?

Joseph Winter:

Looking at the way things are happening, I wouldn't say so. I don't think the attitude of the government of Robert Mugabe has changed at all. I think this quiet diplomacy has been going on since the violence started on the white owned farms - that was almost exactly a year ago. In that period, this policy of quiet diplomacy, of trying to calm things down has been pursued but I don't think anything at all has changed in the way Zimbabwe is acting. This is probably the reason why people are saying that South Africa should step up its actions and do things like cut off electricity and fuel supplies to Zimbabwe.

Mobbray Mwewa, Lusaka Zambia:

What is the position of the military in Zimbabwe over the current political situation in the county? Do they support what the government is doing? I ask this question because in other African countries, the situation in Zimbabwe would have led to a coup.

Joseph Winter:

I think the military is one of the key institutions where Robert Mugabe and ZANU PF, his party, still enjoy a large amount of support. If you remember Robert Mugabe came to power through a military struggle - they defeated the white minority regime of Ian Smith, 21 years ago. Lots of those war veterans - the freedom fighters - went straight from being guerrilla fighters in the bush and into what became the Zimbabwe national army. Those people are now in fairly senior positions and they have always been throughout their lives and remain largely committed to Robert Mugabe and fully supporting of his policies. For example, there have been a lot of stories of soldiers being involved in this land reform question - the invasion of white owned farms - which is Robert Mugabe's key policy, as he sees it. There have been many reports of soldiers benefiting and getting their own pieces of land through that land reform programme and that again is a way of ensuring the loyalty of the army to the present government.

Dave, Wales UK:

In view of Mugabe's increasingly erratic and oppressive behaviour, not only towards whites but to blacks as well - do you think the opposition can remove Mugabe from power without the aid of foreign power?

Joseph Winter:

You can't say it is impossible at this stage - it depends on the elections and if the elections are free and fair - if the opposition MDC are allowed to campaign all around the country - which at the moment I would say is very unlikely. But even if they aren't allowed to campaign, the huge support they have in urban areas where a lot of people live, might swing the balance their way.

The opposition have been coming under fire recently in the past couple of months. People are criticising them for relaxing and taking it easy, while ZANU-PF is pulling out all the stops - going around conducting a vigorous and violent campaign to win by-elections, cracking down on institutions like the media and the judiciary - while the opposition can just condemn it. But then again the opposition don't have any power in parliament by definition because they are the opposition. So the only action they could take would be to go into the streets, organise hundreds of thousands of people walking through the streets. But they think that if they organised anything like that at the moment possibly not so many people would come out because they would be afraid and those people who did come out would run the risk of being killed and they say that is not worth pursuing action of this sort at the moment.

As regards foreign powers - I think it is only South Africa who could do something like cut off electricity and power. I can't see any foreign power invading Zimbabwe at the moment and I don't think that would really be a positive move by whatever foreign power that was.

Geoff Oliver, London, UK:

Considering that Britain accepted the election results in 1980 and is responsible for installing Mugabe in power despite evidence that Mugabe intimidated the electorate in 1980 - what role do you think Britain should now take in resolving the mess it has helped to create in Zimbabwe?

Joseph Winter:

Certainly Mugabe would agree that this is all Britain's fault through its colonialism and this is solving the end of the colonial question. I don't think Britain can do anything at the moment - it is a very, very long way away. They have already tried shouting - we have heard very non-diplomatic language from Britain over the past year or so - that hasn't achieved anything. I don't think Britain can do anything because they are just seen as the enemy by the authorities at the moment.

Ian Isemonger, South African living in Pusan, South Korea:

What do you think of the idea of sending a fact-finding mission from the Commonwealth? Don't you get the feeling, like I do, that this is just another attempt to create the pretence of doing something about the problem, while avoiding decisions to take really hard action.

Joseph Winter:

Well my gut feeling is exactly what the writer just said there - it sounds like a way of putting things off. I think you need something stronger than quiet diplomacy at the moment. In order the change the mind of the authorities of President Mugabe I think what is needed is people like President Obasanjo of Nigeria, Thabo Mbeki of South Africa - in particular the African heavyweights - for them to speak with Robert Mugabe and somehow just persuade him that the way he is going is not the right way for Zimbabwe, for Southern Africa and for Africa. There have been reports that that message has already been delivered - there was a meeting of those three presidents not so long ago. But through a forum like the Commonwealth some meeting like that could possibly bring in a few other big African presidents.

Mugabe is also very close to the Malaysian president - Mahathir Mohamad - that is someone else who does have some influence with Zimbabwe but I think the time for fact-finding missions and quiet words in ears is past if serious violence is to be avoided in the next few months leading up the presidential elections.

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See also:

19 Feb 01 | Africa
Zimbabwe censured on reporter ban
19 Feb 01 | Africa
Why I left Zimbabwe

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