Terrorizing the Press


Councilmember Charles Barron, according to Newsday, is considering a run for mayor. He has already targeted a key vulnerability for the incumbent’s re-election: “I don’t think Bloomberg knows what he’s doing educationally.”

Meanwhile, Barron’s defense of the increasingly volatile, tyrannical regime of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe puts his own sharpness of judgment in question, as I have demonstrated in previous columns. A further, quite startling example of his myopia can be found in Barron’s official report of a fact-finding trip he took to Zimbabwe from October 11 to 23 of last year:

“It has also been widely reported that the press are routinely suppressed. However, we found a reasonably vibrant free press in the country. . . . [The independent newspapers] appeared to be able to go about their daily business without interruption . . . ”

It may interest Mr. Barron to know that on May 3, 2002—World Press Freedom Day—the Committee to Protect Journalists named Zimbabwe one of the worst places in the world to go about the daily business of being a journalist.

And on May 2 of this year, Amnesty International released Zimbabwe/Rights Under Siege, a long, extensively documented report—largely ignored by the American print, broadcast, and cable television media. (It’s only Africa, after all.) This report stated:

“State repression of the media has never been worse. Prior to independence, the media was strictly controlled by the [white] government of Ian Smith through the use of restrictive legislation to defeat the nationalist movement. . . . However, the past three years have seen a sharp escalation in the government’s hostility towards the independent media. . . .

“There has been a significant increase in the incidence of state intimidation, criminal defamation charges, arbitrary arrests, and attacks on independent journalists and media houses. . . . Two media houses were petrol-bombed in 2002, bringing the total number of bomb attacks on the physical infrastructure of the independent press to four since 2001.”

When Councilmember Barron speaks of the “reasonably vibrant free press” in Zimbabwe, he omits the physical courage it takes to rebound against Mugabe’s brutal press critics.

In October of last year, Sandra Nyaira, the former political editor of the independent Daily News in Zimbabwe, was in New York to receive the International Women’s Media Foundation Courage in Journalism award. Councilmember Barron was in Zimbabwe during that week, but I doubt that had he been here, he would have celebrated Sandra Nyaira at City Hall—as he did the month before in welcoming Robert Mugabe there.

On accepting her award, Nyaira said: “Day in and day out, journalists in Zimbabwe work without knowing what the future holds for them—could it be a bomb? Could you be thrown behind bars for being too critical? Or could you just lose your job? . . .

“I stand here today to accept this prestigious award, [but] I feel so ashamed that it is because of my African brothers and sisters, who are so power hungry. I watch in sadness as we fight for democracy and see Zimbabwe, the jewel of Africa, being turned into a pariah state all because of one man’s search for power.”

Her reference to “the jewel of Africa” has chilling resonance. It was the title of Doris Lessing’s piercing history of Zimbabwe under Mugabe in the April 10, 2003, New York Review of Books. She grew up in Zimbabwe, and her first-person account of those years begins:

” ‘You have the jewel of Africa in your hands,’ said President Samora Machel of Mozambique and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania to Robert Mugabe, at the moment of independence in 1980. ‘Now look after it.’

“Twenty-five years later,” Lessing continued, “the ‘jewel’ is ruined, dishonored, disgraced.”

In New York, Sandra Nyaira, reflecting the courage and determination of her country’s independent reporters and editors, made clear that Mugabe has “failed to dampen the spirits of most journalists in the independent media, who continue to work tirelessly to keep the nation informed by giving the other side of the story.”

A March 25, 2003, report by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (with offices in New York and Washington) puts an additional harsh light on Councilmember Barron’s notion of Zimbabwe’s journalists going “about their daily business without interruption”:

“On March 18, lawyer Gugulethu Moyo, a director of the company that publishes the Daily News . . . was assaulted and detained at the Glen View police station. Ms. Moyo had gone to the police station to provide legal representation to a Daily News photographer who had been arrested for allegedly participating in a mass action called by the MDC [the opposition Movement for Democratic Change].

“When she arrived at the police station, Ms. Moyo was physically assaulted by two individuals in full view of the police officers present, who did not seek to intervene.” One of her attackers was Jocelyn Chiwenga, wife of the Zimbabwean army commander, Lieutenant General Constantine Chiwenga. Moyo was “punched, kicked, and hit many times.”

Last year’s October issue of the New York-based World Press Review featured Iden Wetherell, editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, recipient of the magazine’s International Editor of the Year award.

Charged with “abusing journalistic privilege” under Zimbabwe’s fierce censorship laws, Wetherell has been arrested, threatened, and otherwise harassed—but not intimidated. In the World Press Review article, Wetherell spoke of the “balancing” of stories about Mugabe in some of the American media:

“Stories start off by saying, ‘Whilst President Mugabe is demonized as a tyrant, he is a hero to many.’ That sort of approach fails to explain anything—that more than 1 million Zimbabweans voted against him in the 2002 presidential elections. It obscures the fact that it is Zimbabweans who are saying this man is a tyrant, not just the West, that the allegations of misuse of power, of misallocation of funds, come from well-documented sources within Zimbabwe. To situate him as ‘under fire’ from forces in Washington mistells the reality that he is being widely criticized as abusive within Zimbabwe itself.”

Wetherell believes that despite Mugabe’s ceaseless terrorism against his people, “democracy will win over tyranny.” Next week: What are the odds? And why has Nelson Mandela been silent about the acute suffering of the people of “the jewel of Africa”?

“If only Mandela would speak out,” a human rights worker told me, “what a difference that would make!”

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