Armed men torch newspapers

* Truck set alight *Drivers beaten

BY STAFF REPORTERS

HARARE

For South African driver, Christmas Ramabulana, the weekly journey to Harare to deliver The Zimbabwean is normally an exercise in patient endurance. It is a long haul with his precious cargo of independent news for information-starved Zimbabweans. Formalities at the border can often take an excruciating 10-12 hour wait in the queue of trucks. And then there is the pot-hole ridden road northwards for 550kms. Week after week.

But things changed dramatically this week when, after an inordinate delay by VID on the Zim side of the border, he eventually left Beit Bridge with Zimbabwean distribution assistant Tapfumaneyi Kancheta at 9 pm.

As the 14-tonner groaned its way up the Ngundu hills, two double-cab 4x4s overtook at high speed and blocked their path. Eight men in plain clothes, wearing surgical gloves to hide their fingerprints and brandishing new AK-47s, leapt out and commandeered the truck.

They drove along Chivi-Mandamabwe Rd for 16kms before they turned off into the Mandamabwe Rd. After emptying the truck’s and filling up their vehicles, an Isuzu and a Toyota, the attackers stole the truck radio, the drivers’ groceries and clothes. They even stripped Ramabulana of his shoes and shirt. Then they forced him to pour petrol over the newspaper cargo, before firing several rounds into the pile of papers, setting it alight. While the truck blazed, the attackers savagely beat the two men with rifle butts. They then dumped them separately in the bush. Hours later the two wounded men met up on the main road and made their way to Mashava where they reported the matter to the police, under crime register No 35/05/2008.

They are now receiving medical attention.

The provincial spokesperson for the police in Masvingo refused to comment and referred us to national police spokesman, Wayne Bvudzijena. He said he had not seen the report yet as he only started work today. When asked if the police would provide an escort for future consignments, he said: “We don’t provide escorts for private vehicles.”

The attack on The Zimbabwean on Sunday follows a recent complaint by Robert Mugabe’s chief election agent, Emmerson Mnangagwa, that the newspaper had been responsible for Mugabe’s stunning electoral loss in the first round of voting on March 29.

Mnangagwa told reporters three weeks ago that “the British-sponsored newspaper” had increased its frequency in the run-up to the election and communicated what he termed MDC propaganda.

The Zimbabwean was introduced in February 2005, while its sister weekly, The Zimbabwean on Sunday hit the streets in February this year.

Sources at Zimpapers have revealed that Mugabe’s spokesman, George Charamba, made disparaging remarks about the newspapers at an internal awards ceremony two weeks ago where he threatened to impose a punitive import duty regime to limit the circulation of the newspapers inside Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean has become the largest selling newspaper in Zimbabwe – selling 230,000 copies a week at its peak during the run-up to the landmark 2008 elections.

Publisher and editor, Wilf Mbanga, has described the attack as an “atrocity against press freedom”.

“We condemn this barbaric attack against our staff and the newspaper and vow to leave no stone unturned until the perpetrators and their handlers are brought to book,” Mbanga said.

International press freedom groups this week slammed the attack on the newspapers and said any suggestion that nothing was coordinated, that it was all coincidental, is hard to swallow.

The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) condemned the attack, saying it was a desperate attempt to muzzle the country’s small but vibrant independent media.

“There is no doubt that the attack was a calculated attempt to silence the newspaper,” chapter chairman Takura Zhangazha said.

International press freedom group, Reporters Without Borders this week condemned the continuing use of violence against the independent press in Zimbabwe.

The press freedom group said the unfolding war against the independent press should be viewed against the background of scurrilous and inflammatory attacks on The Zimbabwean by officials in the President’s Office.

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