Geoff Nyarota, a journalist forced to flee Zimbabwe after he was removed as the editor of the nation’s only independent newspaper, has been appointed a Nieman Fellow.
The management of the Daily News in Harare said Nyarota, founder of Zimbabwe’s most widely read newspaper, was fired on administrative grounds. But his dismissal on Dec. 30, 2002, came amid an escalating campaign by President Robert Mugabe’s government to quiet criticism from independent news outlets. A new licensing law gives the government the power to close any newspaper or stop any working journalist.
According to the British newspaper the Guardian, it is likely that the Daily News gave in to pressure from the government because it feared it would be unable to register under new media regulations if Nyarota remained.
The day Nyarota was dismissed, Zimbabwean police started searching for him. They raided his house just after midnight on Dec. 31. Nyarota escaped across the border to an undisclosed location in South Africa.
Bob Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation, said, “the opportunity to bring Geoff Nyarota to Harvard will provide a measure of safety for him and his family as well as call attention to the brutally repressive regime in Zimbabwe that has persisted in its attempts to silence a free and independent press.”
Nyarota, 52, launched the Daily News in 1999. Its independent reporting and aggressive efforts to uncover corruption and human rights abuses won the paper a wide audience, and it overtook the state-owned Herald to become the largest-selling paper in Zimbabwe.
In 2001, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) presented Nyarota with one of its International Press Freedom Awards, noting his “courage to speak in a silenced land.” The committee said he’d managed to build the newspaper into Zimbabwe’s “most influential voice despite repeated attempts by President Robert Mugabe’s government to silence it.”
Giles said that CPJ alerted him to Nyarota’s plight and need for sanctuary.
“Geoff Nyarota’s absence from Zimbabwe is a blow to the people of his country who are struggling to receive information in a highly repressive environment,” said CPJ Acting Director Joel Simon. “His presence in Cambridge, however, is a boon to his Nieman class, to Harvard University, and to people everywhere who care about press freedom in Africa.”
Through his tenure at the Daily News, Nyarota was arrested and taken into police custody several times. The newspaper’s offices and presses were bombed. Damage to the presses was so significant that the number of papers it could print was reduced from 120,000 to 70,000 and from a maximum of 48 pages to just 24.
Following a university education, Nyarota became a teacher – the only professional job open to Africans in colonial Rhodesia. With the end of colonial rule he answered an advertisement by the Herald for 12 trainees – the first time the newspaper was recruiting blacks. He applied and got a job.
After a series of posts, in 1983 he became editor of The (Bulawayo) Chronicle, the nation’s second-largest newspaper. During his tenure the paper launched a major investigation – into the “Willowgate scandal” in 1988 that linked government officials with corruption at the Willowvale Motor plant. While other newspapers in the nation ignored the story, The Chronicle’s coverage led to the resignation of four government ministers. Another committed suicide. Nyarota eventually lost his job. Chronicle management said it was “for his own safety.”
He went on to become editor of the Financial Gazette – but again was fired amid pressure from the government.
For six years Nyarota taught journalism courses throughout southern Africa. In March 1999 he launched the Daily News, as an independent newspaper.