Wilf Mbanga has a tough job. He publishes a newspaper, meant for people within – and outside of – Zimbabwe, in exile. The Zimbabwean’s reporters on the ground literally live in fear for their lives. Yet, they continue to give a ‘voice to the voiceless’.
The Zimbabwean’s story is a cautionary tale of what happens when a government imposes restrictions on the media, puts the brakes on free speech and deprives its citizenry of the right to know.
Back in 2003, Zimbabwe had a newspaper called The Daily News. Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, the founder of which was Mbanga, published it. But Zimbabwe had a law called the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (sound familiar?) and The Daily News, which was a thorn in the side of Robert Mugabe’s government, was closed down.
Mbanga left for the United Kingdom, and in 2005, and with a group of journalists and concerned friends, launched The Zimbabwean, published on Thursdays, and a weekend edition, The Zimbabwean on Sunday. It is produced in the United Kingdom, for delivery to citizens in Zimbabwe.
“The difficulties of publishing in exile are HUGE. Cost is prohibitive. Isolation is painful. It’s not a good business model. It’s often not possible often to get confirmation/corroboration of stories. Mis- and-dis information abounds. Trying to cut to the facts and find the truth is a huge challenge,” Mbanga told TheMediaOnline.
Last week, the newspaper launched a new-look and revitalised website [www.thezimbabwean.co.uk] so as to, as Mbanga puts it, “engage with the new tech-savvy generation”.
The interactive site, he said, will help create awareness. “The site is telling the REAL story of how Mugabe has destroyed our nation. He is NOT an African hero, as many believe,” Mbanga said.
“We see The Zimbabwean as a vital connection between the country and those overseas. We will use our new platform to bring attention to the vibrant culture of Zimbabwe, with diverse news on politics, sport, business, culture and all aspects of life in homeland.”
Content for the website and for the print editions of The Zimbabwean is provided by “a team of reporters on the ground, copy from citizen journalists and numerous civil society groups”, Mbanga said.
“Yes, sources are constantly in trouble. Reporters are watched, threatened and one arrested and badly beaten three years ago. Some have fled the country. Some have been called in by CIO for questioning,” said Mbanga. Photographers, he said, run the same risk.
Advertising agency, TBWA, recently ran a campaign for The Zimbabwean that used a series of powerful photographs for billboards and for the website. Their intent was to “look beyond street-corner purchase of single copies in Harare. We needed to sell subscriptions to Zimbabwean communities in South Africa and the United Kingdom as well,” TBWA’s Raphael Basckin told The Media magazine.
“Those photographers were all outside of Zimbabwe,” Mbanga said. “They went in clandestinely –took the photos and then got out again.”
Despite the challenges of working outside of Zimbabwe, the paper’s readership is estimated at 100 000 per week for the Thursday edition, and the same for the Sunday paper. “It’s about the same in South Africa for Thursday’s paper. But inside South Africa, distribution of the Sunday is limited by Allied and we only introduced it recently. It’s around 15 000 a week at the moment but we hope to grow it. We’re negotiating with Allied,” he said. The website has about 40 000 unique visitors per week.
South Africa is involved only to the extent that it has a “core of readers” and some “brave advertisers to whom we are most grateful. Otherwise there is not much engagement, sadly”.
At present, international donors fund The Zimbabwean. “We’re desperately trying to generate our own income via sales and advertising. But fear is causing resistance,” said Mbanga.
Yet, he and his supporters and funders struggle on. Despite trucks full of their newspapers being burnt by Mugabe’s thugs. Despite reporters and photographers living in fear for their lives.
For Mbanga, the truth is simple. “We do it because Zimbabwe is our country and we love it and nobody should have to suffer that kind of injustice in this modern world.”
For more on Wilf Mbanga: http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/wilfmbanga