THE NGO NETWORK ALLIANCE PROJECT - an online community for Zimbabwean activists  
 View archive by sector


Back to Index

Muzzling the watchdog
Bill Saidi
May 03, 2007

Parliamentary elections in 2000 were widely celebrated as a "watershed" for Zimbabwe -- and for good reason.

A new opposition party, just nine months old, had so galvanised the hitherto feeble voices of political dissent that Zanu-PF's grand design of a one-party state was thrown into confusion.

Until then, only Edgar Tekere's Zimbabwe Unity Movement (ZUM) in 1990 had come anywhere close to such a challenge at the ballot box. A decade later, mandarins in the ruling party were bewildered by the rise of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

Four months earlier, in February 2000, Zanu-PF had been thumped in the constitutional referendum. The popular vote, against the government, was virtually the party's first electoral humiliation since independence.

Buoyed by that victory, opposition politicians went into the parliamentary election with their tails up. They sensed how their combination of courage and resources, both human and material, had stunned Zanu-PF. The giant was a knocked-out giant.

The decline of a once resilient economy had strengthened the opposition. On the electoral barometer, voters scanned the bread-and-butter issues and decided the MDC deserved a shot at the ultimate prize.

Another reason, perhaps not entirely universally acknowledged, was the emergence of a stubbornly optimistic newspaper, the Daily News.

The first issue was published in April 1999, following delays caused by financing and mechanical problems. An earlier launch date, in March, was postponed when the foundations on which the small printing press had been installed proved unstable. But by February 2000 the paper was vying for readers with the state-run government standard-bearer, the Herald.

As assistant editor and writer of the Bill Saidi on Wednesday column, I had an inside track into most of what went on at the Daily News.

Editor-in-chief Geoff Nyarota, his deputy Davison Maruziva and myself as assistant editor had all worked for Zimbabwe Newspapers (1980) Limited, the state newspaper publishing house known as Zimpapers that dominated Zimbabwe's press.

Challenging Zimpapers was no picnic. We told a story that the Herald would not tell -- the story of how 20 years of independence had not yielded the milk and honey for which nearly 30 000 people died.

We hammered away to show how ordinary people had been marginalised, as corruption had eaten into the belly of what would have been a healthy and well-nourished youth -- the youth, that is, of our new nation emerging into adulthood.

We chipped away to expose how the freedoms for which people had died were being slowly compromised by the ruling party. Obsessed with power, Zanu-PF leaders would stop at nothing, including murder, to achieve their goals.

As the 2000 parliamentary elections drew closer, the Daily News found itself attracting attention from all sides. Some of this was undesirable, but most was the sort to make an editor walk tall among his peers.

By the time the election campaign was in full swing, the Daily News had come into its own. There is probably no unanimity to this day on the exact impact of the Daily News on the results of the 2000 election, in which the MDC won 57 of the 80 seats.

I have heard it said that if it were not for the Daily News the results would have been different. In 1990, for example, former Zanu-PF stalwart Patrick Kombayi switched to Tekere's ZUM. He survived what was clearly an assassination attempt while challenging Mugabe's number two in the party, Simon Muzenda, for a parliamentary seat in Gweru.

In 2000, the Daily News operated freely. But, in 2001, a bomb blew up the printing press. Journalists, including editors, were harassed and detained. In April 2003, the Daily News and its Sunday sister, the Daily News on Sunday, were banned under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

The Act was introduced for a specific purpose -- perhaps not against the Daily News, but against any media that had the presumption to speak out against the government's abuse of the people's right to dissent.

The Zimbabwe Election Support Network, an NGO, says: "Clear, binding and enforceable media guidelines for election coverage should be put in place. The media needs to be adequately capacitated with skills in election reporting so that they assist in providing correct and adequate voter education/information."

In the present atmosphere, the chances of a free and fair election in 2008 are problematical -- to say the least. There are very slim prospects of the government repealing either the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act or the Public Order and Security Act before the election.

A vicious campaign is being waged against every dissenting voice in the country. In response, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network has urged that: "The media [both private and state] should not be used to convey hate language and propaganda, which hinders the holding of free and fair elections. There is also need for equal access to state/public media by all political parties."

How a government with its back to the wall is likely to respond to such recommendations is not difficult to predict. Unless regional heads of state insist on a personal commitment from Mugabe -- preferably in writing -- to unfettered and free reporting of all aspects of the electoral process, there will be no watershed poll in 2008.

*Bill Saidi is the deputy editor of the Zimbabwean newspaper the Standard. He has been a journalist for 50 years 

Please credit if you make use of material from this website. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License unless stated otherwise.