In Zimbabwe, where journalists face constant harassment and repressive legislation, it's a rare occasion that the army would back off from its interference with an independent newspaper. But that's what seemed to happen this week in rural Gutu.
Between January 14 and 16, a group of soldiers threatened vendors selling the privately owned Zimbabwean weekly, Masvingo Mirror, preventing the sale of about 500 copies in Gutu, a town about 180 miles south of the capital, Harare, according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).
"We had started the new year well, but two weeks into the year some soldiers in the area called Gutu ordered a ban on our newspapers," Masvingo Mirror Editor Golden Maunganidze told CPJ via e-mail. He said the Mirror prints on average of 5,000 copies weekly and competes with the only other local newspaper, the government-controlled Masvingo Star.
"The delivering van had to bring the papers back to the office in Masvingo after soldiers threatened to beat them up, claiming that our paper is writing 'irritating' stories about the army," Maunganidze said. The soldiers were apparently unhappy with a story in the January 7-13 edition headlined, "Soldiers Run Amok." The story said new Zimbabwe National Army recruits had beaten and robbed night club patrons on Christmas Eve. The story referenced the case of one soldier, Nxolise Ncube, who was arrested and sentenced to a year in prison.
The army's subsequent obstruction of the paper's sales "was unfortunate as the story was based on facts as confirmed by the spokesperson for the army in the province, Officer Kingston Chivave, and Ncube's sentencing in court," Maunganidze told MISA. The editor reported the harassment to army headquarters. "After I pleaded with the senior officers at army headquarters in Masvingo, they told me they regretted the incident and assured me that nothing of that sort would happen again." Army spokesman Chivave had a somewhat different story when contacted by CPJ; he denied that harassment had taken place and said he simply advised Maunganidze to change vendors.
Apology or no apology, the Mirror has indeed changed vendors and resumed normal operations without incident. Still, Maunganidze saw a longer-lasting impact on the paper's operations. "Our sales will be affected in the future since some readers will be afraid to read the paper in public in the area where it is seen in bad light with some elements in the army," he said.
This was not the first incident where distributors of privately owned newspapers have been attacked in Zimbabwe. In May 2008, unknown assailants hijacked and burned a truck carrying 60,000 copies of the private weekly The Zimbabwean.