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Zimbabwean Papers Price Themselves Out of Market

Spiralling costs of newsprint - forcing up cover prices - seen by some as the greatest threat to access to information.
By Joseph Sithole
In the past four years if you asked any Zimbabwean what he considered the greatest threat to free flow of information in the country, the answer was unequivocal - draconian media laws such as the Orwellian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, Aippa.



Contrary to its name, Aippa is not about improving access to information or protecting privacy, but protecting the government of President Robert Mugabe from scrutiny by restricting access to information held by public bodies and penalising public and media inquiry into its actions.



Since its enactment, Aippa has been used to close down independent media, including all non-government radio and TV stations and all privately- owned daily newspapers; arrest scores of journalists; and prevent foreign correspondents from working in Zimbabwe.



The most feared man in the same period was its author, Professor Jonathan Moyo, until recently Mugabe’s information minister. But the price of newspapers has overshadowed the media laws. The majority of Zimbabweans simply no longer have access to the government-owned daily Herald newspaper and remaining independent weekly newspapers because of their price.



“In an impoverished country where unemployment is estimated at 80 per cent, the greatest threat to access to information now is the cost of newsprint,” an assistant editor with one independent weekly newspaper told IWPR. “In December 2005 a tonne of newsprint cost 79,631 Zimbabwe dollars (319 US dollars at the official exchange rate of 1 US dollar = 250 Zimbabwe dollars). By June 2006, the cost had shot up to 335,030 before notching an astronomic 2,293,156 in December. The cumulative increase from December 2005 to December 2006 was 3421 per cent - and still rising.”



These price rises by the newsprint monopoly, the Mutare Board and Paper Mills, have hit newspapers badly, especially independent ones that do not enjoy subsidies from government but depend for their revenues solely on readers and advertisers.



As a result, newspapers have been pricing themselves out of the market simply in an attempt to break even.



The daily Herald which cost 100 Zimbabwe dollars (40 US cents) in June last year now costs 1000 after raising its cover price twice in November in response to sharply increased newsprint and printing charges.



With inflation at nearly 1300 per cent, a decent loaf of bread now costs 1200 Zimbabwe dollars. Given the choice between a loaf of bread and a newspaper, the overwhelming majority of Zimbabweans choose bread.



The privately-owned weeklies, the Financial Gazette and the Zimbabwe Independent, cost far beyond what most of Zimbabwe’s poor - the overwhelming majority of the population - can afford. From 300 Zimbabwe dollars (1.20 US dollars) in June last year, the two newspapers increased their cover prices to 600 in September, 1,000 in October before hitting 1,500 on November 30. By late January, they were on sale at 2500 a copy, more than twice the price of a loaf of bread. This represents an increase in six months of more than 700 per cent.



In a country where 3.4 million people face starvation and are in need of food assistance, according to international agencies, it means one-third of the country’s population of 11.5 million has no easy access to information. Latest figures

from the government’s consumer watchdog, the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, indicates that a family of six now needs close to 300,000 Zimbabwe dollars (1,200 US dollars) to survive through a month while average salaries are about 50,000 Zimbabwe dollars a month.



“The implications are double-edged,” the assistant editor told IWPR. “Newspapers themselves face a crisis of survival, without the government appearing to be responsible, although everybody knows it is the biggest cause of the economic collapse, now in its seventh straight year of recession.



“People would obviously rather buy bread when they can find it rather than spend on ’luxuries’ such as newspapers. This is evident in the increasing numbers of copies of newspapers being returned by vendors. Whereas at the beginning of the year the returns were around three to seven per cent of deliveries, this has skyrocketed to nearly twenty percent every week.”



Newspaper publishers have also severely reduced print runs, not simply because of reduced circulation figures but also because of escalating printing costs and the costs of the newsprint itself.



“What all this means is that more and more Zimbabweans are getting less and less information,” said IWPR’s assistant editor informant. “It means more people are getting less informed at a time when their country is facing a deepening crisis and they must make informed decisions about their future.



“It means fewer people are participating in national discourse: the ones being cut out of the loop are the most deprived - and that is the majority of our people. It means more people are becoming the victims of the propaganda of those who have impoverished them because government still enjoys the monopoly of four radio stations and the single television station, all under its firm control, and the sole daily newspaper.”



It is a state of affairs no one could have foreseen a short four years ago when Aippa loomed over every journalist like a hangman’s noose and the public thought what Jonathan Moyo was doing was none of their business.



Since Aippa was signed into law by Mugabe in 2002, more than 400 journalists have lost their jobs in both the private and the state media while more than 100 have been arrested and tortured before being taken to the courts where government has failed to win a single case. Five newspapers have been shut down under Aippa’s provisions.



Moyo dismissed most of the state media reporters from the monopolistic Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation in 2002 as he purged the organisation of all professional journalists who resisted his propaganda. Many have since fled overseas while foreign media organisations, both electronic and print, have been banned from Zimbabwe. Moyo’s was a reign of terror that his countrymen who are journalists will find hard to forget. He was fired from his post last year and has since been trying to re-launch himself as a strident critic of Mugabe: few journalists take his Damascene conversion seriously.



According to Aippa, every journalist must be accredited every year under the state Media and Information Commission, run by a Mugabe loyalist, before he can practise in Zimbabwe. A breach of the legislation is punishable by both a fine and a jail term. Media houses risk losing their operating licences if they employ unaccredited journalists while they are required by law to be registered before they can operate.



The late chairman of the Parliamentary Legal Committee Eddison Zvobgo - who was one of the ruling ZANU PF parliamentary deputies most favoured to succeed Mugabe as president - described Aippa before it was passed by parliament as the “most calculated assault on our civil liberties” since independence in 1980. Soon his anxieties were borne out by the closure of several privately owned newspapers, including the popular Daily News, a fierce critic of the government which following its launch in March 1999 quickly eclipsed the administration’s daily mouthpiece, the Herald, as the highest selling daily newspaper in the country.



While fear of Aippa is gradually receding, something more insidious is taking its place. Zimbabwe’s punishing inflation, by far the highest in the world, is fuelling a spiral in the prices of most basic commodities. The price of bread shot up sharply from less than 100 Zimbabwe dollars (40 US cents) at the beginning of last year to 195 in September to 1200 by year-end.



“When our economy was ticking you sent your child to buy a loaf of bread and with the change buy a newspaper,” recalled one elderly Harare resident to IWPR. “Now it’s ridiculous to send your child to buy a newspaper when there is no bread in the house.”



Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.





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