Zimbabwe’s champion of the press

Geoffrey Nyarota was one of the most renowned journalists in Zimbabwe, and he knows it.

insidelede

The Daily News printing press after the bombing

By Jill Mader

Geoffrey Nyarota has a history with cars. He watched teachers at his Anglican boarding school arrive driving the latest Fords, so he became a teacher and bought “the pride of his heart” — a 1965 Ford Cortina GT. During the Zimbabwean revolution, Nyarota signed up to train as a journalist because he wanted to write about cars. He exposed corrupt government officials running a car scam during an automobile shortage. And over the years, Nyarota learned to recognize the deep green shade of the military vehicles that would pull up outside his home after dark whenever he was about to be arrested — usually after his newspaper published something particularly critical of the government.

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As a reporter and newspaper editor in Zimbabwe, Nyarota dealt with arrests, bombings, harassment and death threats. These were not stories he covered, but the dangerous repercussions of writing the truth. His brazen demeanour and passion for journalism have made him one of Zimbabwe’s most celebrated and imperiled journalists.

Since he came to power in 1980, Robert Mugabe has led Zimbabwe from a beacon of African success to a state of crisis. The independent media has been crushed by strict government regulations, threats and physical assaults on reporters. Journalists have fled the country with targets on their backs. Mugabe has been named one of ten enemies of the press by the Committee to Protect Journalists and one of the world’s worst dictators by Parade.

Nyarota entered the profession in 1978 when he was accepted at the Rhodesia Herald to train as a cadet journalist. His younger, less-educated white colleagues earned higher wages but Nyarota quickly rose to the top. He was the first in his class to have a story published and was soon promoted to junior reporter.

Back then, Mugabe was a champion of the freedoms he now suppresses. He was at the forefront of guerilla warfare against the white minority government; a hero to Zimbabwe’s black majority.

This is why Zimbabwe’s current political situation is not as simple as we think, says Peter Arthur, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University. Although Mugabe is demonized in Western media, he was once a liberator that many Africans supported.

Nyarota even worked for the government once, as a civil servant. It paid well and came with a fancy French car — an added bonus for the car fanatic. But Nyarota missed the frenzy of the newsroom and soon returned to journalism. He had a knack for making papers more appealing to a black audience and boosting circulation.

In 1983 he became editor of a big-city paper, the Chronicle. By then, journalism in Zimbabwe was suffering — government restrictions prevented reporters from covering violence and corruption.

In 1988, the Chronicle broke that mold.

The Chronicle discovered that high-placed government officials were taking advantage of the car shortage in Zimbabwe. They purchased cars from Willowvale Motor Industries and resold them at three times the price. The scandal was dubbed Willowgate and marked a highlight of Nyarota’s career. Circulation of the Chronicle more than doubled and six powerful Zanu-PF politicians lost their jobs. No other newspapers covered the issue. They left Nyarota all the glory and hazards of the limelight.

Bekithemba Mhlanga is a Zimbabwean journalist who now lives in the UK. He says Willowgate boosted Nyarota’s already bursting ego.

“Once the Willowvale scandal had broken, Geoff used this as his badge of honour that he was now floating in the sphere of the angels,” Mhlanga says.

Innocent Madawo was also a journalist in Zimbabwe during this time. He says back then “criticizing the government was synonymous to putting your hand in the mouth of a yawning lion.”

Only a journalist with Nyarota’s confidence — or arrogance — could muster the courage to do so.

Nyarota eventually left Zimbabwe for three years of “self-imposed exile” and studied independent newspapers in Southern Africa. He returned to the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, in 1996 with a mission: to start an independent daily newspaper in Zimbabwe.

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On March 31, 1999 the first issue of the Daily News hit the streets. It quickly lived up to Nyarota’s reputation for high sales and “telling it like it is”.

Conrad Nyamututa agreed to be chief reporter at the Daily News before it was even formed. They met in Nyarota’s office while it was being renovated, before pictures of cars covered the walls. And Nyarota explained his plan.jill1_01.jpg

“He spoke in his usual slow and emphatic manner,” says Nyamutata. “He had to sell the project because the newspaper had not even been created yet. But to credit him, I joined the ‘newspaper’ still. It turned out to be the right decision.”

Compared to the propaganda-filled government papers, the Daily News was a breath of fresh air for Zimbabwe. By the time of the parliamentary elections in June 2000, sales had reached a record high.

Mhlanga says Nyarota’s success was built on glory from the Willowgate scandal.

“When the Daily News came on stream with Geoff Nyarota at the helm, the man’s authority prospered on this yesteryear fame — nothing wrong with that — the paper went on to build a massive circulation and a reputation to match Geoff’s ego,” Mhlanga says.

“This was helped by the fact that the Mugabe regime and the state papers were being the butt of jokes to the nation.”

The Zanu-PF had come closer to losing the election than ever before. The international community denounced them with allegations of rigging the election and smothering the media. Members of the opposition party were beaten. Journalists, many with the Daily News, were regularly threatened, assaulted and arrested. The government wanted its critics silenced.

A month after the election, Nyarota discovered Mugabe’s intelligence organization had hired someone to kill him.

As it turned out, his would-be assassin had too big a heart for the job. After meeting Nyarota in an elevator, Bernard Masara changed his mind. In Nyarota’s office, he revealed the entire plot by calling a high-ranking officer —Robert Mugabe’s nephew — and discussing it over speakerphone. Masara went into hiding and the Daily News published the story.

“Working for the Daily News itself was a daily sacrifice,” says Nyamututa. “We were immediately labeled enemies of the state.”

In January 2001, the Daily News‘s printing press blew up two days after Zimbabwe’s information minister appeared on national television saying the Daily News was a threat to national security that had to be silenced. Explosives that could only be obtained through the Zimbabwe National Army had been used. With the help of private printers, the Daily News hit the streets the next day with the ironic headline Daily News Press Destroyed.

But it was not bombings, death threats, or any of Nyarota’s six arrests that ended the Daily News. New, stricter media regulations coupled with the appointment of a new chief executive of Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, publisher of the Daily News, led to Nyarota’s downfall.

In April 2002, the Zanu-PF government declared that journalists and media outlets had to register with the government. Approved journalists would receive accreditation and follow a government-regulated code of conduct. The law represented the end of free press in Zimbabwe and was immediately condemned by the World Press Freedom Committee, which represents 45 journalistic groups across the globe.

That December, Daily News workers went on strike over a salary dispute with their new chief executive, Sam Sipepa Nkomo. Then on Dec. 30, a government-owned TV station reported that Nyarota had been fired. That was news to Nyarota. He arrived at his office to find the locks changed. Finally, he met with Nkomo and was handed a letter of dismissal. The reason: Nyarota had paid the striking workers on Christmas Eve.

Without the protection of his newspaper, Nyarota was vulnerable. He went into hiding the day he was fired, and police visited his home that night. Nyarota and his family fled the country.

The Daily News was left in the hands of Nkomo, who refused to register the paper with the government. In September 2003, the government banned the Daily News.

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Through the Committee to Protect Journalists, Nyarota was offered a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He attended journalism seminars and workshops with the other fellows. Nyarota was often invited to speak or sit on panels, said Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation.

jill2_01.jpg“He was a fairly high-profile member of the group because his experience of being a courageous editor in Zimbabwe and being driven out was widely known.”

Giles said Nyarota is “intensely committed to finding a way to go back to Zimbabwe.” But, as is the case for many exiled Zimbabwean journalists, Nyarota will not be able to return to his homeland during Robert Mugabe’s lifetime.

According to political scientist Arthur, that time could be quickly approaching because of Mugabe’s old age. He says he’s optimistic that in a few years, Mugabe will not be able to continue in power and Zimbabwe’s political situation could improve.

Internationally, Nyarota has become the champion of his cause. He has won several international awards, including MISA’s Press Freedom Award, UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Award and the Gold Pen Award of Freedom.

Nyamutata says Nyarota has become Zimbabwe’s most celebrated investigative journalist through his tenacity. Innocent Madawo and Bekithemba Mhlanga credit his arrogance.

“To me, Geoff is someone whose ego I am still trying to find an instrument to measure,” says Mhlanga. “But that seems to have served him well in his crusade for a free press in Zimbabwe.”

Recently, Nyarota has returned to his reporting roots with his online news publication, TheZimbabweTimes.com. He edits the site from his home in Worcester, Mass. Nyamututa, now living in the U.K., is the deputy editor. He says they are committed to providing “bold and fearless reporting” to Zimbabweans, but the lack of common access to internet or electricity in Zimbabwe is a challenge.

Online news sites like TheZimbabweTimes.com have become popular throughout the last three years, says Mhlanga.

“The majority of the individuals who have regular access to the Internet are based outside Zimbabwe. They have no chance, hope or desire to go back to Zimbabwe soon to influence the situation on the ground.”

“What purpose do they serve then?” asks Mhlanga. “They help individuals to cope with that feeling they cannot shake of — homesickness.”