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Publisher Challenges Banning Order

But the ANZ newspaper group, a fierce critic of Mugabe, doesn’t appear to stand much of a chance.
By IWPR Srdan
The reconstituted commission to decide the fate of the banned Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, ANZ, is so compromised that it is unlikely to deliver a different verdict from its predecessors, government critics say.

The ANZ were the publishers of the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday, both of which were fiercely critical of President Robert Mugabe’s autocratic rule.

The two publications were shut down in 2003 after the publishers refused to register them with the media regulatory body, the Media and Information Commission, MIC, under which all media houses must be registered and journalists accredited before they can operate in Zimbabwe.

Since 2003, the ANZ has lost several court appeals, including a constitutional challenge which was thrown out by Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku, ruling that the company was approaching the court with “dirty hands” by refusing to comply with the law first before challenging its constitutionality.

The company has since been applying to the MIC for registration, but without success. However, the courts in 2005 ruled that MIC chairman Tafataona Mahoso was biased against the ANZ and suggested that a reconstituted committee could determine the fate of its two publications.

The government last week reconstituted the MIC to deal with the ANZ application, but retained Mahoso as the executive chairman. But Mahoso has removed himself from the committee of three MIC members who have been selected to look at the merits or otherwise of registering the ANZ. Even without his involvement, however, analysts said there were “only slim” chances of the Daily News being licensed ahead of crucial elections next year.

They said Mugabe’s government thrived on its monopolistic control over the country’s major dailies, the Chronicle in the second city of Bulawayo and the Herald in the capital, Harare. It also controls the largest circulation weeklies, the Sunday News in Bulawayo and the Sunday Mail in Harare, the sole state broadcaster, ZBC News, and four radio channels which combined allow it to reach the widest audience, all financed by the taxpayer.

The analysts said the Daily News might be licensed if the government was convinced it was too crippled to pose any serious challenge to the Chronicle and the Herald. They said the paper could possibly be licensed early in the new year to placate the international community, the pro-democracy movement in the country, and most importantly, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, who is mediating between the ruling ZANU-PF and the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC.

In any case, critics pointed out, apart from its own shortsightedness in refusing to register, the Daily News was banned because it was perceived by government to be too closely aligned to the MDC. Both were launched in 1999 and the MDC rode on the success of the Daily News in mounting the strongest challenge to ZANU-PF in the general elections the following year, when it won 57 seats against ZANU-PF’s 62.

Announcing the new team to examine the ANZ’s application, Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu last month said they should be guided in their decision by “previous court rulings”, a caveat which has not been clarified.

The hearing committee is headed by Godfrey Mararike, a lawyer who was blacklisted by the Law Society of Zimbabwe for practicing without a valid certificate and abusing funds from a trust account. He has now rechristened himself Chinondidyachii Mararike in a bid to escape his past. The other two members are Charity Moyo, a ruling party functionary based at the party’s headquarters in Harare, and Ngugi wa Mirii, a Kenyan academic who has been granted Zimbabwean citizenship - in return, he periodically writes pro-government pieces in the official media.

“Prospects for the Daily News being registered ahead of such a crucial election don’t look good at all,” said a veteran Zimbabwe journalist who used to work for the paper. “Government is not afraid of criticism per se, but they hate someone who counters their propaganda every day. The Daily News [became] hostage to fortune when it refused to register, because it had become a thorn in government’s side in the face of a spiraling crisis.”

The journalist said in 2003 when the Daily News was banned, Mugabe was still hurting from accusations that he had stolen the 2002 presidential election and the international community was pushing for tougher measures against the government. He said at the same time there was a need to preserve the illusion that the land reform programme started in 2000 was a huge success, against clear evidence of failure on the ground.

A political analyst in Harare, however, expressed guarded optimism, saying depending on the instructions they have, the new MIC team might not want to be openly biased against the Daily News. “The verdict may therefore be such that they look different from Mahoso,” said the analyst.

“The real test is whether the ANZ still has the resources, both in technical and human resource skills, to pose a serious challenge to papers like the Herald and the Chronicle as we move towards the harmonised presidential and parliamentary elections next year. Government would want to be sure the paper is so crippled that it poses no threat to counter its daily propaganda before it can take the gamble and register it, so that it appears to be opening up the democratic space.”

The government has not registered a single private radio or television channel, despite a 2004 High Court ruling to liberalise the airwaves. The decision to limit foreign ownership of the media means many Zimbabweans who might want to set up independent radio stations or papers cannot find commercially-minded foreign partners to supply the foreign currency required to buy equipment.

Zimbabwe has been facing a foreign currency crunch since 1998, when it fell out with multilateral lenders such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund over the government’s decision to involve Zimbabwe troops in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, the crisis has deepened to include food and power shortages, unemployment and hyper- inflation.

But the political analyst is cautiously optimistic about ANZ’s chances because, he said, the government is anxious to be seen to play ball at its talks with the MDC, initiated by the Southern African Development Community. As for the MDC, “it will obviously want to use the issue of a wider media space as a leverage to get the Daily News back on the streets, given its limited and often negative reportage in the state papers”, he said.

“The question now is when that will happen. The elections are in March, and so even if the Daily News were licensed today, it would take time before it had a significant impact, given the state of the economy and the need to mobilise resources. A daily is the only vehicle with the capacity to sway public opinion in the run-up to the election and the government would want to play safe.”

Meshack Ndodana is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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