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The upside of an unfree press

Like the charred oak of a toasted wine barrel, an acute struggle for liberty imparts rich vitality to an oppressed media. The all-enveloping mix of peace and violence, calm and trauma, relief and fear, elation and despair creates in reporters a sense of history, and of the role and responsibility they have in its unfolding.

During the last days of South Africa’s own fight for freedom, the then Weekly Mail and the ill-fated Vrye Weekblad were both famous for their fearless, fresh, and gritty reporting. At these papers, many a young reporter learnt the rigours of research, the importance of accuracy, the grave duty to be unbiased.

There are distinct echoes of these papers to be found in The Zimbabwean, a weekly newspaper aimed at the estimated 25% of that country’s citizens who live in exile. On sale in South Africa for just R4 an issue, it puts many of today’s South African newspapers to shame.

Edited by Wilf Mbanga, its journalism is hard-hitting, high-quality and even-handed. It challenges the tyranny of Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF and exposes the corruption of Zimbabwe’s top officials, but also digs deep into the affairs of the split opposition, the Movement for Democratic Change. Though it often relies by necessity on anonymous sources, and credits few of its journalists by name, its reporting is raw, real and credible. Its design is conservative, old-school, simple. Yet it doesn’t look like the knock-and-drop tabloids South Africa knows so well. Its layout is tidy and clean, and its smart blue headlines lend it a classy touch.

Its most recent issue leads with the suspension of a top reserve bank official for embezzlement. The details of the story must have been hard to dig up for the very same reason the scam was easy to commit, namely that it involves off-the-book black market foreign currency trades and gold purchases, in which the bank routinely engages. Not surprisingly, a little skimming has been taking place. Credit to the paper for getting to the core of the story with its headline: Massive RBZ forex scam exposed.

Also on the front page, and proving its lack of bias, a news story about the troubled politics in the MDC. This issue is further explored on page two, in the first of a two-part investigation by Itai Dzamara, which details the origins ofthe faction led by Arthur Mutambara and Welshman Ncube, its split from the original Morgan Tsvangirai party, and the reasons why South African president Thabo Mbeki is believed to have given his support to Ncube:

Mbeki is believed to be uncomfortable with a trade-union backed opposition party unseating Zanu (PF) in a similar fashion to what became of Zambia when Fredrick Chiluba ousted Kenneth Kaunda. Mbeki finds a serious threat to his ANC political survival as well as relationship with the trade union body, COSATU. “He fears that if this happens in Zimbabwe, it is likely to inspire a same revolution in his country and threaten his party, hence he is opposed to Tsvangirai,” a source said. “He has been preferring Ncube, an academic, to lead the MDC.”

The reporters and sub-editors are calm and factual, despite the terrible subject matter of some of its articles:

  • Starving villagers eat beer residue, berries
  • How can the shelves be filled again?
  • 90% of wildlife killed — ZCTF [Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force]

These stories are told without hysteria, without hyperbole, and with only infrequent editorialising steps outside the boundaries ofreporting. They’re not immune to the occasional broadside, however:

  • Bootlicking business leaders flatter Mugabe.

It’s not perfect, of course, but neither are its circumstances. Many of its reporters are volunteers, for example, its cover price is low, and advertising sparse. Yet the quality of The Zimbabwean belies the depth of the country’s crisis, and lends credence to some of the appeals that dot the newspaper. Brendan Seary, in an article lifted from South Africa’s Saturday Star, appeals to South Africans:”Please, please, please, South Africans, show these poor people some sympathy and dignity if you come across them.” An advertisement placed by economist Norman Reynolds, who advocates a “trusteeship” solution that would make Zimbabwe a temporary protectorate or province of South Africa, asks the latter to at least open its borders and employ economic refugees to fill skills shortages so they can repatriate real money to their families back home.

With Zimbabwe’s economy in a death spiral, and its independent press effectively silenced, this paper promises “A Voice for the Voiceless”. Local readers could do worse than buying, reading, and supporting it. The Zimbabwean is a welcome refresher on how it’s done.