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journalist Sandra Nyaira: Bravery, talent and success
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
typical Zimbabwean newsroom, a woman would be in the minority. What
effect did that have on your work? Is news reporting competitive?
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
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.
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
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
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.
did you, a woman political news editor, persist amid such challenges
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.
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.
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!
newspaper work different from working for a news wire?
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.
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
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
or two things never to do when interviewing a subject, or when trying
to get information from a source?
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
So apart from being personal
and friendly, one has to remain impartial and give everyone a voice.
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