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The Daily News

In for the long haul

26 Sep 2003

"We are here to bury the honourable Robert Mugabe."

These words, uttered by a speaker at the funeral of a deceased senior Zanu-PF figure, were to be published Zimbabwe's Daily News last Saturday, but never saw the light of day.

The man being buried was, in fact, former deputy minister of public construction and national housing Robert Marera. The relative making the speech quickly realized his faux pas and corrected himself.

But it was enough for an alert Daily News journalist to pick up as a interesting angle for a piece for the Saturday edition. Leading the edition was a story about how Ministry of Energy officials were abusing their position to profit from the country's fuel crisis.

In The Daily News on Sunday was to be a story about growing Southern African Development Community concern over Zimbabwe. These stories were carted off in computers seized by the Zimbabwean police.

Daily News editor Nqobile Nyathi said while the lead was hard-hitting, the rest of the paper would have been a relaxed weekend read.

The Sunday paper, however, was to be a hard-hitting one. According to The Daily News on Sunday editor Bill Saidi, the newspaper would have given the country's draconian press laws a kick in the teeth.

The newspaper would have carried an editorial condemning Zimbabwe's Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act as "draconian and unconstitutional", said Saidi, the author of the editorial comment. The Daily News failed to publish the edition because police sealed off their offices and impounded computers. Efforts to publish the edition using facilities at other newspapers failed.

Legal experts and media practitioners in Zimbabwe were convinced that the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ) was in for a "long haul" in its bid to get the papers back on the streets.

Its efforts to obtain publishing licences through the courts for The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday would take much longer than anticipated said legal experts.

"We know its going to be a long haul, but management has told us that they are prepared to pay our salaries for the next two years, if it is going to take that long in the courts," said a senior journalist at the newspaper.

But even if ANZ was to move mountains and manage to get the administrative court to make a ruling on the MIC action, it would still be a "long haul" before the two papers are back on the streets because the matter might remain entangled in the courts, government sources said.

On Monday police invaded the newspapers' offices in central Harare for the second time and pounced on 127 computers, ostensibly to "access the company's financial documents".

This time they were more courteous; enough to obtain a court order before entering. "It's like a graveyard here," said a Daily News reporter. "Although we have the desks, there are no computers and we are not doing any work. We just come here to chat and mingle."

The curse of a quiet diplomacy

Date:     26 Sep 2003

Last week one of my reporters, seeing about 10 police officers swarming around our newsroom, commented wryly: "You would think we were hiding weapons of mass destruction, the way they barged in and scared the hell out of everyone."

He didn't seem frightened though, even as the detective in charge harangued Sam Nkomo, the CEO of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), publishers of the only independent daily newspaper in Zimbabwe, The Daily News, and its recently launched sister publication, The Daily News on Sunday.

"I shall arrest you!" the detective shouted at Nkomo, a slightly-built 60-year-old who had performed his fair share of national duty during the struggle for independence.

ANZ had just been told by the Supreme Court that before it could challenge the constitutionality of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, it had to register with the Media and Information Commission, the lynchpin of a law described by commentators, journalists and human rights activists as evil, draconian and anti-democratic.

The effect of the ruling was to unleash the police on the premises of the publishing company. They were there to collect the computers and any other equipment used to produce the newspapers "unlawfully".

Later I asked Nkomo, who had spent time in Zambia during the struggle, whether he had met President Thabo Mbeki, who had been in that country at the same time.

No, he said, he had not.

My question was pertinent in that most of what was happening to ANZ was a result of the "quiet diplomacy" launched by Mbeki to help the people of Zimbabwe find real meaning in their hard-fought independence. Quiet diplomacy had emboldened Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe to conduct the affairs of his nation with a palpably outrageous disregard for the niceties of the rule of law, consensus, or even any pretence that the people's opinions mattered.

Later, in the high court, Justice Yunus Omerjee, hearing ANZ's challenge to the uncouth police action, was acerbic in his questioning of the hapless prosecutor assigned to handle the government's case. "What does that mean?" he asked her after she read a passage from the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, trying to bolster the prosecution case.

At one time, the courtroom burst into raucous laughter when the prosecutor said the police had acted because they were afraid the newspaper company would hide computers.

Omerjee granted the ANZ application with an emphatic reference to the lawlessness of the police action.

But since 2000, when the wheels started coming off the experimental vehicle that Mugabe's Zanu-PF ruling party hoped to bamboozle the rest of the world into believing was heading for democracy, the rule of law has been virtually moribund in Zimbabwe.

This was just one episode during the turbulent four-year existence of The Daily News. Long before its printing press in Harare was bombed in 2001, a junior reporter got the fright of his life when Mugabe asked him: "Who is funding your newspaper?"

Before the bombing, key Zanu-PF personnel, including Jonathan Moyo, the architect of the obnoxious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, had warned that it was time something was done about The Daily News, then under the editorship of Geoff Nyarota. To this day, there have been no arrests for the bombing.

Mbeki has virtually endorsed the two elections others have condemned as grievously flawed -- the parliamentary elections in 2000 and last year's presidential elections. To challenges to take a more principled and tough stance against Mugabe, Mbeki has said the people of Zimbabwe must be allowed to sort out their own mess. He has also pleaded for a chance to apply his quiet diplomacy, which many Zimbabweans now believe to be responsible for Mugabe's mounting arrogance. Mugabe's refusal to countenance any resumption of dialogue with the Movement for Democratic Change has been cited as another product of Mbeki's quiet diplomacy.

If the actions against ANZ and its newspapers result in their demise, it will be on Mbeki's head.

Quiet diplomacy will have helped a ruling party alleged to have staged one of the biggest election frauds in history to silence its fiercest domestic critic.

It may leave most Zimbabweans with little option but to wage their own struggle against quiet diplomacy.

Bill Saidi is editor of The Daily News on Sunday