The Daily News, Zimbabwe's last independent daily newspaper, is fighting for its life in the courts and on the Internet. The paper, founded in 1999, had been the most popular paper in Zimbabwe with a pass-around readership of about 800,000.
But its outspoken criticism of President Robert Mugabe has brought the paper a boatload of trouble. The Daily News has had its printing presses bombed, and a number of its execs, editors and reporters have been detained by the government.
Mugabe passed the restrictive Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) in 2002, requiring all media outlets to register with the government.
The Daily News refused -- choosing instead to fight the law's constitutionality -- and was closed down by order of the Supreme Court last month. The government confiscated 127 computers from the paper's headquarters in the capital city of Harare.
The Daily News and its owners, the Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), decided to launch a Web site, but had to get it hosted in South Africa, where ANZ Chairman Strive Masiyiwa runs the successful Econet Wireless Group. Sam Nkomo, the company's CEO, told me that one staffer was in South Africa running the site, while reporters had started filing stories from Zimbabwe.
"We wanted to continue to be in touch with our readership [after the paper was shut]," said Nkomo. "But we do know that our paper is read by the general mass of our population, and our Web site will only be accessed by a few people. We thought that it was better to keep a few informed than everybody be uninformed."
Fewer than 1 percent of Zimbabweans have Internet access, so the site's viewership will mostly come from international readers and Zimbabweans living abroad. A couple problems remain, however, with the plan for the Web site. Daily News journalists who would report from Zimbabwe are considered "unregistered" and therefore practicing outside the law. Three Daily News reporters were recently threatened by police, who said they could be jailed for two years for working without accreditation, according to the AFP wire service.
The state-run Herald newspaper ran a report on the Daily News' plan for a South Africa-based Web site, with Jonathan Moyo, minister of state for information and publicity, attacking the plan. "If they want to go and set up a Web site in Timbuktu or in Mars, they are welcome to do so and must take all their unaccredited journalists with them," Moyo said.
Without the daily newspaper, the company will be hard pressed to pay its 300 employees. ANZ's Masiyiwa, known as the "Bill Gates of Africa," promised to pay everyone's salaries for two years, but Nkomo called that a "tall order."
"I don't know how that might be possible," he told me. "I think [Masiyiwa] said that hoping that some donors or friends might come in and help."
Fighting in court
In the meantime, Nkomo said ANZ has gone to court to gain accreditation. He said he is confident the paper will win, and a decision on the case could come as soon as Thursday or Friday.
Sizani Weza, advocacy coordinator for the watchdog Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), a non-governmental organization based in Harare, told me via e-mail that the group had been actively campaigning to reform the restrictive media laws and was helping the Daily News in its court case.
Weza said the Web has long been a haven for independent and alternative news on Zimbabwe, including the nonprofit site, Zimciv.
"The civic and opposition political party voices have always found full expression on the Internet," he said. "There will be nothing special to the Daily News [online] initiative except the glory of circumventing the repressive laws of Mugabe's rule. The Daily News will not be able to access the over 800,000 readers in Zimbabwe it used to get before the ill-fated Supreme Court ruling. The Web version should not distract the paper's owners from the fight to get the paper in the streets of Harare, Bulawayo and all the regions in Zimbabwe."
So far, the Daily News' site has run under the banner "Friends of the Daily News." The site is still in pre-launch mode, lacking a lot of hard news, but there is a forum brimming with critiques of the government's move to ban the Daily News. Slowly, entertainment and business news is trickling onto the site. Nkomo hopes a redesigned site will be up within a week, no matter what the court rules on the paper's registration.
Independent weeklies under fire
There are two smaller independent weeklies in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Standard and Zimbabwe Independent. Though they are registered with the government, there have already been threats by government officials against them. The Independent's editor, Iden Wetherell, told me via e-mail that Moyo had made specific threats, calling his paper "trash" and saying the private weeklies should be closed down as well.
"The licensing and accreditation system of the MIC [Media Information Commission] will be used by government to act against newspapers such as ours," he said. "We are undaunted. The majority of voters in Harare, where we operate, and Bulawayo, the country's second city, rejected Mugabe in the 2000 referendum, the 2000 general election, the 2002 presidential poll and in municipal elections. They expect us to do our duty by speaking out on corruption, misrule and state-sponsored lawlessness."
Wetherell said he's been arrested three times, including once for carrying a Reuters photo of half-naked Amerindians playing soccer. He told me that readership for the Independent has gone up since the Daily News closed, because people view them (along with the Standard) as the only independent voice remaining.
But Nkomo said that if the court does rule against the Daily News, the government will "find a loophole to take action against [the weeklies] as well."
Weza said the loss of the Daily News has been devastating for citizens of Zimbabwe. "The remaining private newspapers are weeklies and their focus is very divorced from the information we used to receive in the Daily News," he said.
"Only the Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent share the same ideological inclination as the Daily News. Human rights abuses are now being suffocated, thanks to government control of the state media. The Daily News used to give these stories prominence. It was a platform for the opposition and civic society to express their views."