With hope and courage, Zimbabweans mark Press Freedom Day

By a Correspondent
HARARE - Journalists marched in protest in Harare. Students in Bulawayo applauded the US Ambassador's criticism of the regime's clampdown on the media. Others looked forward to the day when retribution will come to those responsible for silencing four independent newspapers and

locally-based independent radio stations, firing experienced journalists from the state-run broadcaster, and introducing notorious laws against freedom of expression. Thus was World Press Freedom Day (May 3) marked in Zimbabwe – with courage and hope, despite all that has happened. “… Governments may kill the messenger legally but they cannot kill the message,” columnist Bornwell Chakaodza wrote in the Financial Gazette, adding that people from all walks of life, including in rural areas, tune in to independent radio stations Studio 7 and SW Radio Africa beaming from abroad. “Banning or closing newspapers does not mean that you eradicate the truth. Zimbabweans clearly understand and appreciate that it is phenomenally healthy to listen, watch and read alternative media.” In Harare, more than 100 journalists, waving placards inscribed with the names of banned newspapers, including The Daily News, The Tribune and the Weekly Times. Some taped their mouths signifying the gagging. Escorted by police on bicycles they marched from the Ambassador Hotel to the Daily News offices, chanting and singing, while motorists hooted in solidarity. It was, as Zimbabwe Union of Journalists secretary general Foster Dongozi put it, a day to reflect. In Bulawayo, US Ambassador Christopher Dell told journalism students: “Look behind nearly every economic dysfunction in this country … and you will likely find some impediment to a free flow of information or the freedom to act on that information.” Of course, there was the usual official absurdity to mark the day. This included a rambling article in the state-run Herald by Secretary for Information George Charamba attempting to justify the bannings of newspapers and broadcasters, the laws, the daily outpourings of crude propaganda, and the harassment of journalists on grounds of “national interest.” And just to show how free it all is, The Herald accompanied these Charamba thoughts with a picture showing several newspaper mastheads, including that of the banned Daily News. The caption announced that “Zimbabwe has a vibrant media industry in which private and public-owned papers compete freely for readership.” That was one that perhaps not even Charamba himself could have made up. But apart from this touch of unconscious humour, it was a solemn day. “Many wounded souls still hope that justice will one day prevail when such authors of poisonous … media laws will confess their evil machinations before our own Truth and Reconcilation Commission,” said Thomas Deve, chairperson of the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). The Financial Gazette’s Chakaodza pointed out how bad things are: ludicrous stories in the state-run newspapers; news conferences reported more or less verbatim with no analysis, investigation or context; fearful and easy to manipulate “toddlers” working at the state broadcaster; most experienced journalists either eking livings abroad or in non-journalistic occupations at home. But he, too, was optimistic, believing it is only a matter of time “before the golden age of Zimbabwe journalism returns once again and real ideals of free are saluted on future May 3s.” Meanwhile, two Botswana TV journalists, Beauty Mokoba and Keketso Seofela, covering a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak, were arrested May 4 and detained for two days at Plumtree before being bailed. They risk two years’ jail if convicted at their May 23 trial. For now, that’s how it is.

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