LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Easing governmental restrictions on journalists
before planned March elections in Zimbabwe will not be enough to allow
opposition leaders to wrest power away from President Robert Mugabe, a
former independent newspaper editor said.
Geoffrey Nyarota, who faced repeated arrests while editor of The Daily News, said the African nation’s constitution already enshrined freedom for the press and opposition parties. However, Nyarota said Mugabe simply ignores those rights and derides anyone opposing his rule as being a mouthpiece of the West.
“Everybody should have free access to the media. It is not enough for him to say: ‘I now allow you access to the media,’” Nyarota said. “It is meaningless.”
The now-shuttered Daily News served as the nation’s sole independent daily newspaper, as the state controlled the other newspapers, radio stations and television channels. In January 2001, its presses were destroyed by a bomb hours after a government official described the paper as “a threat to national security which had to be silenced.” It later ceased publishing.
Mugabe, 83, has ruled Zimbabwe since it gained independence from Britain in 1980. He pushed for the often-violent seizures by blacks of white-owned commercial farms that began in 2000. Those seizures disrupted agriculture in a country once considered southern Africa’s breadbasket, sparking official inflation of 8,000 percent and leading citizens to flee.
Nyarota, in Little Rock to speak to the Arkansas Committee on Foreign Relations, said the West largely gave Mugabe a pass when he first came to power. However, the leader always had “dictatorial tendencies” other nations only realized when he began the land seizures.
“At the time of independence, Mugabe put on a face that was only a mask,” Nyarota said. “All of these years, he must have been simmering.”
Nyarota said the West’s insistence that Mugabe must change or cede power only hardened his support among African leaders.
Changes to Zimbabwe’s media, security and electoral laws — negotiated in talks between the ruling party and opposition aimed at ending the nation’s political and economic crisis — were rushed through parliament at the end of 2007. They became law Jan. 11.
Along with easing rules on protests, the revised laws relax rules for journalists to obtain licenses, and set up a new licensing authority.
Independent media groups say the real test will be if foreign journalists receive visas and accreditation to visit Zimbabwe for the elections. In the recent past, foreign journalists have routinely been denied visas and accreditation.
Nyarota said he could see The Daily News applying for a license to begin publishing again. However, he stressed it would take time to set up a free press again in the country, time that is lacking as the March elections near. In the time between, he said state-run organizations would continue to ignore or issue lies about opposition to Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party.
Nyarota pointed to a recent rally planned by opposition leaders that came apart after police arrested Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change overnight.
“Government radios and newspapers announced that the rally had been called off. Many people believe what they hear on the radio,” Nyarota said. “So our electoral process is flawed from quite early. The opposition is denied access to the media.”
Nyarota, who now lives in Boston, hopes to be able to return to Zimbabwe one day. However, he said freedoms will continue to be oppressed in Zimbabwe until Mugabe leaves office or naturally dies.
“You hear people now say, ‘We’re putting our lives in the hand of God,’” he said. “I think that is wrong to expect democracy to come through divine intervention.”