This week, IJNet spoke with a senior Zimbabwean journalist who has worked in print media for 14 years and is now in exile. In 2007, the journalist, who has requested to remain anonymous, launched a Web site that seeks to provide useful information and training for Zimbabwean journalists and to link journalists with news makers. The site, Media in Zimbabwe, also works to raise journalists' awareness about human rights and the need to remain non-partisan.
The southeast African nation of Zimbabwe is a state in turmoil; its president, Robert Mugabe has been in power since 1980 and his party, ZANU-PF, has controlled politics for 27 years. In 2001, the government tightened laws on election rules, security, and the media. That year marked a turning point for the media, as the spontaneous arrest of several independent journalists and the bombing of independent media house Daily News in Harare caused many to seek exile.
Despite some positive changes in 2009, including the election of opposition leader Morgan Tsvingirai as Prime Minister, Zimbabwe remains a country fraught with grave human rights abuses and economic mismanagement.
AB: How did you begin working in journalism?
MIZ: I have been a journalist for 14 years; I majored in print journalism in Zimbabwe before I left and now I work with a broadcasting house.
AB: Can you tell me about the idea behind Media in Zimbabwe?
MIZ: Once [I left Zimbabwe] I decided to come up with something different that would help journalism in my country. I decided against a news Web site because there were too many, so I did something different. I wanted a specialized newsletter; one that would serve as a resource tool for training and information, a blog site, anything that a Zimbabwean journalist might need to know about journalism and human rights.
AB: You write anonymously and run the site alone, how do you get the word out about Media in Zimbabwe?
MIZ: It is tricky; because I am anonymous it is hard to get the word out. However, I started it by sending e-mails to journalists, colleagues, and news makers. I asked them to subscribe and it has been a success.
AB: Media in Zimbabwe's tagline is “Striving for a Better Zimbabwean Journalist.” Can you discuss the qualities a good Zimbabwean journalist must have?
MIZ: Ours is a painful and difficult background, one that is polarized and not easy to operate. As such, we seek a better Zimbabwean journalist for the future, a journalist that is well trained, fair, and objective. Moreover, we aim for a journalist that is sensitive to human rights and is nonpartisan.
AB: How has the landscape of journalism changed since you started? Is press freedom improving in Zimbabwe?
MIZ: When I started, journalism was not easy, but it was not dangerous. The country had a number of independent newspapers before the passage of restrictive laws, such as the Information and Protection of Privacy Act, passed in 2002, which made it a crime to work as a journalist or run a media house without a license from the government. Free media then began to decline, as a lot of media organizations were forced to shut down. (In 2001, the printing press of the independent Daily News in Harare was bombed.)
In 2005, a more restrictive law, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform Act), was passed, which established penalties of up to 20 years in prison and heavy fines for publishing material that could be prejudicial to the state.
AB: Given the high level of censorship and violence in Zimbabwe, what are some techniques journalists use to get stories? How do they verify facts?
MIZ: People in Zimbabwe are fighting for survival every single day, not only because of censorship but due also to lack of training and economic resources. So journalists have adopted a number of techniques to cope. One such way is to use a pseudo name. State accredited journalists working for a state media house will write an official government story, and then use a pseudo name to write the true story for the free media.
In terms of checking the accuracy of stories, journalists can use a number of tricks. Say I hear a story from eye witnesses that six people were killed in Zimbabwe. As a Zimbabwean journalist, I cannot call a minister to verify, so I have my editor in South Africa or a journalist abroad call the minister to verify the issue. Another technique is to check your story against that one produced by The Herald, the government’s official mouthpiece. You check the facts and compare it with what you get undercover.
AB: Have you ever been harassed or intimidated by the government for your work?
MIZ: The wounds are still too fresh to talk about but yes, I suffered a lot of harassment and intimidation. I hope one day to be able to share those nasty experiences.
AB: Given the volatility of the situation in Zimbabwe, have your interests changed?
MIZ: Yes, initially I started as a business reporter but changed to human rights journalism as events progressed. I figured that we needed journalists that were aware but sober. There is a trend in journalism in Zimbabwe to ignore the abuses of the opposition just because they are anti-Mugabe. This is the same leniency we once gave to Mugabe when he was a freedom fighter, we said give him a break and we did not hold him accountable. To prevent this from happening, I came up with Media in Zimbabwe to concentrate on human rights and make sure that journalists are always aware of what is happening, no matter what side they are on. This is something that will benefit media in Zimbabwe and develop its respectability vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
AB: What can journalists in conflict and post-conflict societies, such as in Sudan and Somalia, learn from the Zimbabwean experience?
MIZ: From Zimbabwe, journalists can learn to be non-partisan, not to take the side of the church, the government, etc. You must question everyone for the benefit of your audience. Do not leave people unaccountable otherwise you will have a problem like we have now. Be objective and abuses will not fly; search for the truth, we did not in Zimbabwe and this is the price we paid.
To learn more about Media in Zimbabwe, visit http://www.mediainzimbabwe.com.
This is the second installment of an IJNet interview series that takes an in depth look at the experience of reporting from conflict and post conflict zones in Africa, and how the media copes in volatile situations. To read the first feature, an interview with Ugandan human rights journalist Frank Nyakairu, click here.