Gorilla Journalism in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s independent media was coming under sustained attacks.

Zimbabwean Journalists

The government attempted to legalize its repression by introducing the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in March 2002, aiming to limit media freedoms by protecting the government from scrutiny by restricting access to information held by public bodies and penalizing public and media inquiry into its actions.


by Iqbal Tamimi

Thursday, 14 April 2011 09:11

A new daily paper in Zimbabwe has made a surprise appearance on the streets of Zimbabwe ‘s capital, Harare, lately. Dummy copies of the paper, called The Mail were handed out free last March ahead of its official launch in April. There are rumours that this newspaper has been financed by a youth wing of ZANU-PF, the party headed by President Robert Mugabe. Such news encouraged me to shed some light at the press establishments in Zimbabwe, the southern African republic and former British colony formerly known as Southern Rhodesia.

The official language in Zimbabwe is English, even though the majority of the people speak Shona, and Sindebele native languages. And even though 90.7 % can read and write in English, the unemployment rate is 80%, and those who are living below the poverty line make up 68% of the population. Zimbabwe experiences hyperinflation, chronic shortages of fuel and consumer goods, HIV/AIDS epidemic, drought, besides being ruled by President Robert Mugabe who is accused of massive violations of human rights.


Historical background

Zimbabwe was a rich empire exporting gold, ivory, and copper in the middle ages. In 1830s European hunters, traders and missionaries explored the region from the south, and by the 1880s colonialism started after the arrival of the British, Cecil Rhodes, with his South African Company.

The white minority opted for self-government in 1922 and Ian Smith of the Rhodesian Front became a prime minister in 1964. He tried to persuade Britain to grant Zimbabwe independence, and in the following year, he declared independence unilaterally under white minority rule, but Mugabe changed the constitution in 1987 and become the executive president who promised to transform Zimbabwe from colonialism to ‘democracy’.

Communication and media:

The telephone system in Zimbabwe suffers poor maintenance. There are 7 AM radio stations, 20 FM stations, 17 repeater stations and 1 shortwave, 16 TV stations and 1.351 users of internet through 6 service providers, but most of all, the majority of newspapers are controlled by the government.

Journalism History

Zimbabwe has some of the oldest newspapers in Africa. In June 1891, the Mashonaland and Zambesian Times, a hand-written paper “crude but readable cyclostyled sheet,” was published. On October 20, 1892, The Rhodesia Herald replaced the F; the country’s major daily newspaper that was established by the Argus Company of South Africa to support the British South African Company in its quest to continue ruling Rhodesia. The newspaper was renamed as The Herald, surviving today as the country’s oldest daily newspaper.

The Smith regime used to appoint the board of governors who exercised effective political control, including denying the African opposition on-air access. Censorship of the media has forced ‘The Herald’ in the 1960s to resort to leaving blank spaces in its news columns to indicate where stories had been banned or censored. In general, the media was catering for the needs of the white settlers and ignoring news of interest to the African majority, however, news about crimes by blacks were prominently covered.

Journalism had not changed much by the time the country achieved its independence. This was not surprising at all; for all top Rhodesian printing and publishing newspaper executives, all the editors, copy editors, reporters, the advertising and circulation executives were white. The state is still in control of The Herald and Chronicle, the Sunday Mail, Sunday News, the weekly Manica Post and Kwaedza/Umthunya, and using them regularly to propagate government and ruling party policies and propaganda to attack government opponents. The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) is also state-controlled. It succeeded the Zimbabwe Rhodesia Broadcasting Corporation (ZRBC) in 1980, which in turn had succeeded the Rhodesian Broadcasting Corporation (RBC) in 1979. Like the RBC under the white minority rule government of Ian Smith, thus it has been the mouthpiece of the Mugabe regime exactly as it has been the mouthpiece of previous colonial rule.

The Birth of independent media

New forms of Independent media were born in Zimbabwe, leading to ‘gorilla journalism.’ In 1990s an opposition party was born accompanied with the first independent newspaper, The Daily News, the first to compete with the government controlled daily newspaper ‘he Herald. Both newspapers had the structure of western newspapers, being born from the same womb of colonialism and its journalistic experience, but differed in their practices, ‘The Daily News’ was the voice of the people while ‘The Herald’ was the mouthpiece of the government.

Media has been a powerful tool for exposing human rights abuses and holding the governments to account. It had even a greater impact during conflicts of interests. This explains Zimbabwe’s independent media coming under sustained attacks. The government attempted to legalize its repression by introducing the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in March 2002, aiming to limit media freedoms by protecting the government from scrutiny by restricting access to information held by public bodies, and penalizing public and media inquiry into its actions. It became mandatory for all journalists and media organizations operating inside Zimbabwe to be registered – policed – by the Media and Information Commission. This has lead to closure of five independent newspapers, including the ‘Daily News’ and its sister, the ‘Daily News on Sunday’.

Guerrilla Journalism

The Supreme Court ruled that ‘he Daily News, Zimbabwe’s only independent daily newspaper, is publishing illegally because it had not registered with the state-controlled Media and Information Commission MIC. It was closed on 12 September 2003. The police occupied the Daily News offices from October 2003, until 21 January 2004.

Journalists have been harassed, arrested, beaten, tortured and locked up; and their offices were vandalized. Such attacks forced some newspapers to find new alternatives, such as publishing in neighbouring South Africa and trucking the newspapers to Zimbabwe, others resolved to online journalism from exile.

When Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe and his political party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, lost the presidential and general elections for the first time in their 28-year history since liberation from colonial rule, Mugabe’s chief election officer, Emmerson Mnangagwa, blamed the media, singling out The Zimbabwean, the country’s mass circulation weekly independent newspaper, and the SW Radio Africa, an independent broadcaster, for having adversely influenced the electorate. Mugabe’s press secretary, George Charamba, declared that the government would “deal with” The Zimbabwean newspaper. Within days the newspaper truck carrying 60,000 copies of The Zimbabwean on Sunday coming from South Africa to Zimbabwe was hijacked and torched. Soon after, a new “luxury” tariff had been officially announced, which slapped punitive duties on all foreign news publications.

In December 2007 – Mr Mugabe attended EU-Africa summit, where he was criticised over his rights record. Ex British Prime Minister Gordon Brown boycotted the meeting over Mugabe’s presence. In March, 2008 the opposition, MDC won parliamentary elections. In September President Mugabe and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been detained in the past and accused of plotting to assassinate Mugabe, signed a historic power-sharing deal keeping Mugabe as president, while Tsvangirai took the role of the Prime Minister.

Journalism’s struggle to promote democracy

The Zimbabwean newspaper story is an example of Gorilla journalism on its way to democratising the press. It began in February 2005 printing 10,000 copies a week and has grown to 200,000 copies in the run-up to the March elections, thus, becoming the largest newspaper ever to be published in Zimbabwe. It effectively penetrated Mugabe’s media blackout, penetrating into the rural areas and opposing crude propaganda directed at the people who formed Mugabe’s main stronghold. At the same time, its web site recorded great success peaking at 3.8 million hits a week during the election period. The paper edition was also available in 52 countries through subscription.

Because of the financial situation, the newspaper was forced to suspend publication of the Sunday edition and cut severely on print run for the Thursday edition—from 200,000 to only 60,000 copies per week. Even at this limited level, the newspaper had to pay more than $100,000 per month in duty costs to the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, in addition to the loss of its truck forcing the newspaper to incur $40,000 in transport hire charges to get the newspapers into Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean was subjected to exorbitant charges of 40 percent duty, plus 15 percent value-added tax, as well as a surcharge of 15 percent—all payable in foreign currency. Prior to this duty being imposed, the paper was charged in local dollars at the rate of 10 percent.

Colonialism introduced the western model of journalism to subdue and oppress the Zimbabweans. Strangely enough the same model of journalism was the tool used to seek democracy and secure more civil rights afterwards. It remains to be seen what message the new newspaper will carry.


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