Magazine article The Spectator

Publish and Be Threatened, Bombed, Beaten Up and Tortured

Magazine article The Spectator

Publish and Be Threatened, Bombed, Beaten Up and Tortured

Article excerpt

The Daily News of Zimbabwe is the most successful newspaper to have appeared in Africa over the last couple of decades. You might say that in a continent famous for bad news it has been a beacon of light. Launched in March 1999, it initially encountered terrible distribution and technical problems. Circulation slumped to below 30,000 and the money ran out. A Soros foundation stepped in to save it from closure. Local investors then chipped in more money - at least half of the original shareholders came from outside Zimbabwe - and around the beginning of last year the paper began to turn the corner.

Probably the main reason was the impending general election and the growing public dissatisfaction with the corrupt tyrant Robert Mugabe. Politics really do sell newspapers, at any rate in a one-party state. As the only independent daily in the country, the Daily News became a rallying point for many people fed up with Mugabe's grim and incompetent regime. By the time the election took place last June, it was selling 120,000 copies on a good day, about twice the government-controlled Herald. In a country where by no means everyone can afford a newspaper, and where there are still many who can't read, that is an enormous circulation. Five or six people are, on average, reading every copy.

Last Sunday morning some saboteurs broke into the Daily News's printing works in southern Harare, and expertly planted a device. This came after threats against the paper from the `war veterans' - Mugabe's thugs - and the minister of information. The explosion and resulting fire completely destroyed the main press and slightly damaged the other. The intention of the bombers was to put the paper out of business, and they nearly succeeded. Its management has found temporary printing facilities in Harare, and every day this week has been printing nearly 70,000 copies a night, all of which are being sold. This compares with a print run of 100,000 copies a day before the bombing. Pagination has been reduced, and with it advertising revenue. The future of the paper, which was just starting to make a profit, must be in some doubt. The only cause for joy is that the extra copies which the Herald has been pumping out have not been finding buyers.

This attack by the Zimbabwean government is the most deadly but not the first.

Last April a bomb was placed in a shop near the editorial offices of the Daily News in central Harare. Fortunately it caused little damage. In July an assassin who had been hired by Zimbabwean intelligence services to kill Geoffrey Nyarota, the newspaper's founding editor, got cold feet when he encountered the redoubtable Mr Nyarota in a lift. The deputy editor was beaten up by police last December and again on Tuesday of last week, after the war veterans had demonstrated outside the paper's offices and the nearby British High Commission. On other occasions, reporters and cameramen have been harassed or arrested by police. Journalists working on other independent newspapers have also suffered. Most infamously, Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto, two journalists on the Sunday Standard, were kidnapped and tortured for several days by government security agents in 1998.

The worst danger for those of us who work in Fleet Street is probably a complaining letter from a politician or, at worst, a libel writ. …

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