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Zimbabwean journalist Sandra Nyaira: Bravery, talent and success
Dominic Mhiripiri, Global Conversation
February 19, 2011

In her native Zimbabwe, a country plagued by political and economic challenges, Sandra Nyaira-s name is associated with reporting excellence, courage and success.

Nyaira rose from the humble urban township of Glen Norah, in Zimbabwe's capital city, Harare to graduate studies in journalism at City College in London.

Later, she spent half a year as a visiting fellow at Harvard University-s Kennedy School of Government; currently, Nyaira works at the Voice of America (VOA) in Washington, D.C. Her work has also appeared in the London Times, the Guardian, and the British Journalism Review.

In-between college and exile in America, however, Nyaira had a starring role working as the political editor of the independent Daily News in Zimbabwe between 1999 and 2002; she has said it was a first in the country for a woman to take a leadership position in the newsroom.

After its launch in 1999, the Daily News instantly became the biggest daily in the country, acclaimed for its philosophy of 'telling it like it is-, at the time, Zimbabwe wallowed in its most turbulent political and economic crisis since independence in 1980.

The relentless and widespread repression of Mr. Robert Mugabe-s government did not spare the media; independent journalists like Nyaira faced the risks of politically sponsored censorship, arrest, torture, and death.

Many were jailed, abducted or killed, while many simply disappeared forever.

As political editor of a vibrant daily during Zimbabwe-s most beleaguered point in history, Nyaira was quickly thrust onto the forefront of her paper-s award-winning coverage of the country-s political crisis.

In 2002, Nyaira was awarded the International Women-s Media Foundation-s Courage in Journalism award, one of the many accolades that she has earned since graduating from Harare-s Polytechnic College in 1995.

Nyaira left Zimbabwe for England in 2002, one year before government clampdown on independent media eventually forced the Daily News to shut down in 2003; media space has not yet re-opened in Zimbabwe, and hundreds of journalists like Nyaira have been forced to remain in exile.

She currently lives in Washington, D.C., from where she gave the following interview.

Tell me a little about your career from your training, to the publications that you have written for, and finally, what you do now.

I never imagined I would be a journalist. I was passionate about music and radio, always listening to Radio 3 in the early 1990s. But when I passed all my subjects except Math, my father forced me to take extra lessons and I started missing out on hanging out with my friends and laying my favourite sport.
So when my friends went for a 'career guidance- program at the Harare Polytechnic College, the only thing they said when they came back was "You are going to love their journalism program, Sandra!"

Sure enough, when I went for an interview there, I aced it: my over-exposure to radio had sharpened my curiosity and given me a command on current affairs that my peers did not have. I was the youngest member of the incoming class, but I did well and enjoyed my time there

After that, I worked for the amazing Zimbabwe Inter-Africa News Agency (ZIANA), which was a tremendous experience for me. I moved on to the Daily News, before I left Zimbabwe for England.

This question mostly refers to your experience before you worked in newspaper. In your opinion, what are the three most important skills that every young writer needs to have?

Curiosity and the ability to do what other colleagues are not able to do; but obviously, the other attribute has to be one-s willingness to go the extra mile. I got rewarded for going to lengths that none of my colleagues, both male and female, could ever imagine. I was patient, humane and stubbornly persistent.

In a typical Zimbabwean newsroom, a woman would be in the minority. What effect did that have on your work? Is news reporting competitive?

Zimbabwe-s newsrooms are very patriarchal! Part of what made me hard working was the small desire to prove all the men wrong, and soon that was clear because although I was younger than my colleagues and a woman, my work was still excellent

You became a political editor at Zimbabwe-s biggest selling newspaper. What specific aspects of your reporting and other skills made you stand out and get selected for that role?

Let me give you this example: Mr. Solomon Mujuru, commander of the nationalist army during the war of liberation who is the husband of current vice-President, Joyce, is famous in the media for his loathe of giving interviews. He just never gives those, and every journalist knows it. But I am the one person who asked him questions after every meeting of the ZANU PF politburo (most powerful political committee in Zimbabwe.) In my mind, I was cultivating a source, albeit a stubborn one.

It was a shock to all my colleagues but not me when eventually Mujuru broke his jinx and agreed to me; the country-s hardman was opening up to me about his efforts to restore inter-party peace after political violence perpetrated by one of his party colleagues.

So when editors are filling positions, they look at those qualities that make a journalist stand out, but of course, in addition to work ethic, professional conduct and quality of your output.

I am sure that is partly why I was selected for such a role; at 26, I was the youngest political editor in the country, and the only woman.

Zimbabwe-s political landscape was tense in 1999-2002, and objective journalism was dangerous. The bombing of the Daily News press in 2001 and the many arrests of editors come to mind. What are the specific personal challenges or risks that you faced? Were you ever harassed, or arrested?

It was a time of unbelievable danger; at any time a colleague was being harassed or arrested -- and many were hospitalised.

I remember an incident where I was walking from a national stadium after an event by two opposing labour unions in the same venue. I was walking with a bunch of colleagues from the AP, Reuters and other newspapers.

A man who was throwing a tantrum confronted me, accusing me of defying the minister Moyo (Mr. Mugabe-s propaganda spin-doctor before 2002, infamous to this day for being the man who destroyed independent media in Zimbabwe)

What was scary about this attack was that he was in no compromising mood, and hordes of ZANU PF (Mugabe's ruling party) youth were already in pursuit of our group. Fortunately, it happened when were near our car, and because our driver was already there, we quickly fled from the scene movie-style.

In another incident, ZANU PF youth came to my house and sang threatening political songs with drums for a whole night; the incident shook me, but even more, it shook my parents and showed them first-hand the risks that their daughter-s job brought.

But of course, the risks are just too many, and I was not the only one facing them.

How did you, a woman political news editor, persist amid such challenges and risks?

I am the sort of journalist who wasn-t to do her job, whatever the conditions; journalism is what I love, what I am paid to do, and what I must do: getting the facts right, informing the public, and nothing less "likewise, a football player should score goals, and a cook should make great meals" that is their job!

So part of my drive is my passion to deliver news to the public, regardless of the environment; this is what helped me talk to people of all political affiliations, different ranks and go into situations and that were risky, and ask questions that were taboo. In my mind, I was only doing my job faithfully.

Sandra briefly discusses being objective, and how many of Zimbabwe-s online newspapers today are "a joke" clearly parroting one political party or the other and failing to report neutrally.

I was fearless from my days in training, perhaps because I had always been the youngest in my class, sometimes more naive that my classmates. I remember in 1998, when I asked Mr. Mugabe a question about factionalism in his own party. In those days, there was no big opposition party yet, and it was taboo to ask him such a question.

Mugabe was walking from an event to his helicopter, and I followed along, beyond where his security allowed us, right to his helicopter. When I threw the question, he decided to answer it, against the wishes of his security men. For those few minutes, I chatted to him and had enough information for a great story and none of the other journalists were there. Although they later decided to follow me into the forbidden zone, they were too late and Mugabe-s plane left.

What was your most useful source of information?

It may surprising, but some of the best news scoops that led to award-winning stories came from our colleague in state media, which was controlled by Mr. Mugabe; obviously any great scoop they found was dead rubber because no editor at their papers would use it. This is where our ability to maintain relationships despite the divide came in handy.

I also found out that belong very personal and humane with people very helpful; whenever I picked the phone, I greeted the males on the other hand with their African totem tribe symbol, usually an animal or asked how their family was, even though did not know their families. In Zimbabwe, when a woman greets a man in such a respectful way, you set them at ease right away and you put mentally them 'in charge- of the scenario.

So if, for instance I picked the phone and said, "Makadiiko Nyamuziwa, mhuri inofara here?" (Shona language, literal translation: "How are you, Lion, is your family happy?" even the would be arrogant public official, or stubborn politician eased and agreed to talk to me; sometimes, they only backed up after they had already given me enough to report on a story!

Was newspaper work different from working for a news wire?

Yes. Before the Daily News, I worked at ZIANA, which was news agency like Reuters and our stories were picked across the continent. I incredibly loved it there: we were competing with others to be the first on a story, and there was that feel of pressure and excitement around the newsroom.

It was different from, say, a newspaper, because for many newspaper story you cover the same story with a bunch of other papers and you know tomorrow-s paper is going to have that same story.

ZIANA was a memorable experience because we had the crème de le crème of Zimbabwean journalism from whom you could learn, and were also completely independent. It was sad for me to leave the news agency for the new daily newspaper, and there was some sort of bidding contest between ZIANA and the Daily News.

What was the toughest or most controversial story you ever did?

I covered a political event in which one minister had invited an estranged former heavyweight back into the fold; The information minister, Jonathan Moyo, was unbelievably mad at the story the ruling party was to been as extending an olive branch to a renegade former nationalist icon)

Moyo flooded the state media with reports rubbishing my story; for a few days, the radio and television reported my story non-stop, my picture was on the pages of the state newspapers. A government minister was fully engaged in attacking one journalist, and it almost paid off.

My editor had to ask the driver and photographer at the even if my report was accurate, and I even started doubting myself. Although my notes clearly showed that I was reporting exactly what had happened, I still decided to ask for a leave, a little overwhelmed by Moyo-s onslaught. I was at home sleeping when I received a call from one of my friends who had been a senior colleague a few years earlier.

After I told him I was only relaxing at home and not working because of the Moyo attacks, he broke the news to me, "Tekere [the rebellious former political heavyweight] has released a statement. He says your report was accurate to the letter, and that Moyo is lying."

What if Tekere had not vindicated me? To this day, I would doubted myself

One or two things never to do when interviewing a subject, or when trying to get information from a source?

In political writing, you have to be only a journalist, not politician. You have no side of your own, so you cannot, for instance, call an official and say, "Your people have killed 5 people here, what-s going on?"

So apart from being personal and friendly, one has to remain impartial and give everyone a voice.

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