Zimbabweans Celebrate New Voice

New publication seeks to empower the diaspora and inform a population denied access to information in the run up to the elections.

Zimbabweans Celebrate New Voice

New publication seeks to empower the diaspora and inform a population denied access to information in the run up to the elections.

Thursday, 10 April, 2008

Award-winning Zimbabwean journalist Colin Nyamutanba really began to worry about his safety when he learned that his name was on a “hit list” drawn up by President Robert Mugabe’s thuggish War Veterans. But when he found out he had also been singled out by the regime’s Central Intelligence Organisation, he knew that it was time to leave the country.

Three years to the day since he arrived in London with his new bride and began a difficult life as an exile, Nyamutanba is celebrating the February 10 launch of a new publication that hopes to give a voice to the Zimbabwean diaspora as well as inform those inside the country.

The Zimbabwean is the brainchild of former Daily News managing director Wilf Mbanga, who has been living in Europe for the past two years and is publishing the paper from his home in the south of England.

It’s estimated that as many as half a million Zimbabweans are living in exile in the UK, with a further two million in South Africa. The paper, which has an initial print run of 120,000 copies, will have a British edition and one published in Johannesburg.

Mbanga is quick to point out that the title’s role is not one of opposition activism. With parliamentary elections scheduled for March 31, The Zimbabwean will seek to provide balanced coverage of all platforms – even that of the ruling ZANU-PF, which enjoys a monopoly on media coverage within the country.

“In Zimbabwe, there is only one voice and all others are gagged, so it is important that alternative viewpoints are heard,” Mbanga told IWPR.

“If people are to make a judgement they need to have all the facts at their disposal – and we are going to provide those facts.”

Mbanga has been founding independent papers for the bulk of his professional life – moving on to a new venture each time Mugabe’s government moved to close the previous one down.

His last business was the hugely popular Daily News, which was eventually shut down by the authorities in 2003, following a calculated campaign of harassment and violence against members of staff.

This is his first foray into publishing as an exile and, aside from donations from two non-governmental organisations in the Netherlands, it is being funded by the Mbanga family’s life savings. Clearly a lot is at stake for Mbanga personally, but he insists that many of The Zimbabwean’s contributors are risking far more.

Around 60 journalists - both in Zimbabwe and in the diaspora - have offered their services to the paper free of charge.

Mbanga is full of praise for his “brave” team. “Even those journalists who have come to the UK are still afraid of what the authorities might do to them,” he told IWPR.

“These people have been threatened, dragged through police stations and beaten up just for doing their jobs.”

Mugabe’s introduction of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, AIPPA, in March 2002 had made life increasingly difficult for journalists, who were then required to apply to a state-appointed commission for official registration. Hundreds of them were forced out of work in this way, and many papers – including Mbanga’s Daily News – were put out of business.

The situation has deteriorated with the introduction earlier this year of a series of amendments to AIPPA, which allow for prison sentences of up to 20 years for journalists who write “falsehoods” which damage the reputation of the authorities – and two years in jail for those who work without official registration.

While the diaspora reporters may be out of any physical danger, there is no statute of limitations or date of expiry contained within the act, meaning that any exiled journalist who is deemed to have “defamed” the president or his government could be arrested the moment they set foot on Zimbabwean soil, even decades later.

As a result of this, the bulk of journalists who have offered to write for The Zimbabwean – including Nyamutanba – will do so under a pseudonym.

In spite of the risks, exiled journalists in London, who recently formed an association, are welcoming the opportunity to continue writing about their country.

“It is marvellous for me to throw off the bloodstained clothes of AIPPA, that evil legislation that affects every aspect of our lives as journalists,” said Nyamutanba, who still does not know for certain if he is facing criminal charges as a result of his investigative journalism.

“This an opportunity for me to contribute to the establishment of a democratic future in my country, even though I cannot live there at this time.

“We need a return to common sense and respect for democratic values in Zimbabwe,” he said. “If [we exiles] can contribute to this, it will be a honour.”

As the AIPPA law stands, papers published outside Zimbabwe do not have to be registered with the authorities – but Mbanga is well aware that this may change at very short notice.

However, even if the print edition is eventually prevented from hitting Zimbabwean newsstands, the title will still be accessible online from mid-March at its website www.thezimbabwean.co.uk .

“This newspaper is a fantastic project, and a fine example of the extraordinary resilience of the Zimbabwean diaspora,” said Nyamutanba.

“I really hope that it will help the people inside the country by bringing them the information needed to make an informed choice. With luck it will become a platform for freedom of expression and offer everyone an opportunity to express how they feel.”

Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London.

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