Campus & Community

Zimbabwean journalist Nyarota finds sanctuary at Harvard :

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Years of uncovering corruption brought threats, arrest

Geoffrey Nyarota (Staff photo by Stephanie Mitchell)

Geoffrey Nyarota knew something was wrong last December when an acquaintance called to tell him the government-owned radio was reporting that he had been dismissed as editor-in-chief of the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s largest independent newspaper.

The call surprised him for a simple reason: he hadn’t yet been dismissed.

Nyarota asked who was quoted as the story’s source – it was Samuel Sipepa Nkomo, the voice at the other end said.

Nkomo, the paper’s recently hired executive chairman, was sitting across the desk from Nyarota.

The two had been discussing Nkomo’s displeasure that Nyarota had paid striking workers over the Christmas holiday without consulting Nkomo, who had been away. Though Nyarota said he did so to ensure the paper went out, Nkomo suspended him anyway. Further, Nkomo asked the government, as is required in Zimbabwe, for permission to fire Nyarota. Nyarota said he told Nkomo he would resign to save him the trouble of seeking permission from the government. It was while the two men were in the midst of this discussion that the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation announced that Nyarota had been dismissed.

After six arrests, two death threats, and years of being harassed by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s police and security services, Nyarota had developed a sense for trouble. And, as he hung up the phone, his internal alarms were screaming.

His alarms had been screaming for months, actually, ever since Nkomo was appointed executive chairman at the paper the previous April.

Nkomo had been a casualty of one of the Daily News’ many investigations over the years, before he became executive chairman of the Daily News. Nkomo had resigned as head of the Mining Industry Pension Fund and been arrested after a Daily News investigation into the misuse of those funds, according to Nyarota. Tensions were so high at one point, Nyarota said, that Nkomo’s wife chased him and a photographer from her workplace when they came to interview her on allegations of fraud involving her and her husband.

With all that swirling in his head when he left the paper that afternoon, Nyarota began packing.

“I got the message,” Nyarota said. “I got the impression that I was now very vulnerable. In the past, when the police had looked for me, I had the protection of the Daily News.”

Nyarota left Harare that day for a small town. He left just hours ahead of the police, who visited his office the following morning. They came for him at home that night too, at 1 a.m., but he hadn’t returned. He did go back to Harare, but just long enough to pick up an airline ticket and catch the first flight to Johannesburg the following morning. Ten days later, he was joined by his wife and two of his children. A week later, they were in the United States.

Mugabe and the press

Nyarota’s caution was well-founded, according to the New York-based nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). In May 2002, the committee named Zimbabwe among the worst 10 countries in which to be a journalist. The designation puts Zimbabwe in such company as Colombia, Afghanistan, Cuba, and Iran.

In the two years prior to the designation, CPJ said, Mugabe’s government had detained more than 50 journalists, tortured at least two, and filed more than three dozen lawsuits against reporters and their news outlets. CPJ also cited police and progovernment vigilante attacks against several journalists and three bomb attacks since 2000 against the Daily News alone.

While keeping an eye on conditions in Zimbabwe, the CPJ became aware of Nyarota’s work. It awarded him one of its 2001 International Press Freedom Awards, for his “courage to speak in a silenced land.”

It was the CPJ that became aware of Nyarota’s latest troubles and alerted Harvard’s Nieman Foundation, according to Nieman Curator Robert Giles.

Giles said the foundation is among four programs in the country that offer fellowships to journalists being persecuted in their homelands. After hearing from the CPJ, Giles said, the Nieman Foundation offered Nyarota a fellowship, which he accepted early this year.

“In the case of Geoff, he needed sanctuary,” Giles said. “We moved very quickly because this is an urgent matter.”

Giles said Nyarota is the third journalist the Nieman Foundation has accepted under similar circumstances. Nyarota’s story, along with that of other international fellows working under difficult conditions, helps U.S. fellows and those working in more press-friendly nations understand the difficulties some of their colleagues face.

“This is one of the dimensions the international fellows bring to the U.S. fellows each year,” Giles said. “[U.S. fellows] are deeply respectful and admiring of journalists who persevere under those circumstances.”

Because the fellowship started midyear, Nyarota will remain at Harvard through the end of the year.

Willowgate and the free press

Nyarota said he’d like to return to Zimbabwe, but he isn’t sure when it will be safe for him to do so

Nyarota had been a thorn in Mugabe’s side since 1988, when as editor of the government-owned Chronicle in Bulawayo, he helped expose government corruption in an auto factory. Amid an automobile shortage, government and political officials would buy cars for a relatively small amount at the government-run Willowvale factory and sell them to the auto-starved public for inflated prices.

Nyarota said the shortage had gotten so bad that people had to make a 30 percent down payment for a car and then wait as long as three years for delivery. In one case, he said, a vehicle bought by a government minister for 30,000 Zimbabwe dollars in the morning was resold that evening for Z$115,000. The scandal was eventually dubbed “Willowgate” and resulted in the resignation of several of Mugabe’s top ministers and prompted one to commit suicide.

After Willowgate, the Chronicle’s management kicked Nyarota upstairs to a new position in the Chronicle’s main office in Harare. After the move, Nyarota said he didn’t feel safe and left Zimbabwe for several years of self-imposed exile.

“There was absolute pandemonium [during Willowgate],” Nyarota said. “Where there had been allegations of corruption in the past, this was the first time anyone had proved it…. But the pressure on me was so much that people say I’m lucky to be alive now.”

After teaching journalism in southern Africa from 1994 until 1996, Nyarota returned to Zimbabwe in 1997. This time he had even grander plans. He wanted to start an independent newspaper to compete with the government-owned papers that dominated the news.

Two years later, the Daily News debuted, with a heavy emphasis on investigative journalism.

“Since 1999, it has run a collision course with the government,” Nyarota said. “Until then, the government-owned newspapers had treated government as a sacred lamb. We tried to break down that situation and report news reflecting the situation as it was. … it was inevitable, but we were rather surprised by the extent of the government’s reaction, or over-reaction.”

Bombs and death threats

The government’s reaction was at least partially sparked by the paper’s success. In a short time, Nyarota said, the Daily News surpassed the government-run Herald as the nation’s largest-circulation daily, reaching a circulation of 129,000. The Herald, meanwhile, had seen its circulation fall from about 160,000 to just 60,000, Nyarota said.

In 2000, with Mugabe facing opposition from the Movement for Democratic Change in the presidential election, pressure on the Daily News intensified, Nyarota said. He was arrested six times since then, he said, and received death threats in April and July of that year.

The July death threat was revealed, Nyarota said, when the alleged hit man met Nyarota in the paper’s elevator. Nyarota greeted the stranger and asked about his family. After chatting a few moments, the man told Nyarota he had to see him privately.

Nyarota summoned other senior editors and they sat down with the man, who said he had been hired by Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organization to assassinate Nyarota. The man, Nyarota said, changed his mind when Nyarota greeted him in the elevator. The man proved his story to the satisfaction of Nyarota and other editors after calling police headquarters and talking with people there.

During this period of turmoil, the paper was bombed twice, Nyarota said. In the first incident, a grenade was thrown into the curio shop under his office, wrecking the shop but injuring nobody. The second bombing occurred in January 2001, Nyarota said, when four bombs were planted in the paper’s printing presses, completely wrecking them.

Though the presses were destroyed, the paper published on schedule, with the aid of several private printers.

Though he has his own theories, Nyarota said it’s still a mystery how Nkomo was appointed executive chairman of the paper in April 2002. Nyarota’s queries to the paper’s majority owner, who helped Nyarota get the publication off the ground, were fruitless, Nyarota said. Nyarota said he believes his ouster was partly due to the government’s reluctance to register him – and the lack of an excuse not to – under new laws to register journalists, which were to take effect in January.

The paper’s official position on his dismissal was detailed in a Jan. 3 article. In it, Nkomo denied any political agenda and said the action had nothing to do with the new registration requirements. He said Nyarota was fired for unilaterally paying striking workers without authority. In the article, Nkomo denied that Nyarota had resigned and said that the firing was the “culmination of a series of actions by Nyarota which went against almost all principles of good and ethical management.”

Nyarota said that until the episode leading to his departure, Nkomo had never discussed Nyarota’s management style with him.

Still biting

Despite his absence today, Nyarota said the Daily News “still has bite.” The staff of journalists is still committed to revealing government corruption, he said. He worries, however, that the emphasis on investigative reporting will fade. His deputy editor quit after Nyarota left and two younger editors were promoted into the top two spots over senior people Nyarota had hired.

Nyarota said he persevered over the years because of a growing sense of public responsibility and accountability. It’s that same sense, he said, that he hopes will keep his colleagues at the paper going.

“Those journalists at the Daily News also feel the same. They feel a sense of responsibility to the nation,” Nyarota said. “It’s a form of national service for the welfare of our people.”