23.09.2009 -

UNESCO Harare interviews Geoffrey Nyarota

UNESCO Office in Harare goes one on one with, Geoffrey Nyarota, 2002 laureate of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize ahead of media reform in Zimbabwe.

Under the new Global Political Agreement which saw the establishment of a new government inclusive of the country's three main political parties, Zimbabwe agreed to democratize the media, which for the past decade had been highly polarized. With the new dispensation in place, there seemed to be new hope in the country particularly in the media fraternity where talk of pending reform is the order of the day in media circles.  It was against this background that on the eve of the World Press Freedom Day 2009, UNESCO Harare’s Maggie Mzumara (Public Information Officer) interviewed Geoff Nyarota (GN) 2002 winner of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

MM: We haven’t heard from you in a while, what have you been up to for the past few years?

GN: Since November 2006 I have been the publisher and managing editor of The Zimbabwe Times (thezimbabwetimes.com), an online newspaper, which seeks to inform Zimbabweans both in the Diaspora and inside the country about crucial events taking place in our troubled country. The website is based in Massachusetts, in the United States. I launched the Zimbabwe Times soon after my first book, Against the Grain, Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsman, was published in South Africa in 2006. I am constantly watching the unfolding events in Zimbabwe with a very keen interest while preparing to return to a country that I love profoundly and have missed tremendously over the past six years.

MM: Can you share some thoughts and perspectives on winning the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize – did this prize contribute anything to your life vis-a-vis your career?  Your perspectives?

GN: Being a laureate of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize has opened doors to an entirely new media world for me. Winning an award named after such an illustrious and courageous journalist, a man who paid the supreme sacrifice in the pursuit of his professional responsibilities, has had a very humbling yet inspiring influence on me. As journalists we are sometimes guilty of not taking cognisance of the enormity of the challenges and the responsibilities that we carry on our shoulders.

I have travelled to distant parts of the world with UNESCO, keeping eminent and excellent company. I have drawn inspiration from meeting the president of the Guillermo Cano Foundation, Anna Maria Busquets Cano, the widow of the murdered Colombian journalist who is honoured by this award. She is a gracious woman who constantly inspires me to seek to be worthy of the great name that I have been associated with since 2002.

MM: How would you say you have been contributing to world press freedom?

GM: I believe I have played a frontline role in pushing the frontiers of press freedom in Zimbabwe in the post-independence era after government mounted a campaign to suppress press and other freedoms. The government of Mr Robert Mugabe has over the three decades devised strategies to keep the press effectively muzzled so that abuse of power, rampant corruption, abuse of human rights and mismanagement of the national economy remain concealed from public scrutiny. Starting at the Chronicle in the 1980s and subsequently at the Financial Gazette and then The Daily I have been in the forefront of a campaign to enforce accountability and transparency on a secretive, intolerant and hostile regime. Unfortunately this has been no easy task and a number of Zimbabwean and other journalists have fallen victim to harassment and persecution.

MM:   How critical do you think Press Freedom is - To a nation? To the media? To ordinary masses?

GN: Genuine press freedom should be a cornerstone of any democratic system of governance. In a democratic state the media should exercise free access to information, including from government sources and the freedom to disseminate such information without let or hindrance. The public should have unfettered access to information of interest, importance or relevance to them. That way citizens are able to make decisions on matters that affect their lives on the basis of information obtained from a wide variety of media. A nation is strong when its citizens are informed.

MM: Do you think Press Freedom as an ideal is achievable?

GN: Absolute press freedom is an ideal that is difficult to achieve because of the competing interests of different segments of society. Different interest groups will always seek to protect or promote their own interests. As a result of arising conflict efforts are made to influence or control the media, especially by those ensconced in positions of power or influence. Professional and ethical journalists will, however, always seek to maintain their independence in the interests of those they seek to serve.

MM:  What needs to be in place? Any pre-requisites?

GN: A major pre-requisite of press freedom is a minimum of interference or meddling by non-editorial parties in the editorial decision-making process of the media. Journalists should be left to make editorial decisions on the basis of professional and ethical considerations. It is essential that journalists are appropriately trained and prepared for the onerous task that they shoulder as professionals. That way they earn the respect of the public that they serve. 

MM: With regards to the new dispensation in Zimbabwe – what is your take on the possibility of Press Freedom?  

GN: After years of suppression of the press in Zimbabwe it is obligatory that the media become both liberated and empowered to play an effective role once more in keeping the public competently and credibly informed. Of course, stringent media laws such as AIPPA need to repealed or amended so that journalists and media houses are free to discharge their duties and responsibilities without let or hindrance and without fear or fair. They should be guided only by their quest for the truth and fair play. There has been too much polarisation within the media in Zimbabwe between the independent press and the government controlled media.  This is a matter that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency so that in the final analysis journalists derive strength from unity of purpose. I believe press freedom is easier to achieve in an environment where media practitioners are adequately trained, as well as knowledgeable and skilled. Great emphasis should be placed on the continuous training of journalists.  

MM: Do you see the new dispensation in Zimbabwe contributing to the ideal of Press Freedom in any real terms?

GN: If by new dispensation you are referring to the government of national unity, my one great fear, and it is growing stronger by the day, is that as they become entrenched in the trappings of power, the former opposition politicians who yesterday championed democracy and press freedom, could easily fashion an alliance of convenience with their former oppressors. As they seek to protect their newly found power and privilege they could easily turn hostile on the media, especially the independent press, while seeking to exert their own control or influence over the state-controlled media outlets.

MM: Please explain your views?

GN: That power corrupts maybe be a cliché but it is a fact that politicians are fascinated by power and control. Politics somehow turns individuals into control freaks. Once secure in oisitions of power their commitment to transparency and accountability sometimes becomes dented.

MM: You have lived in other countries, as compared to Zimbabwe and other emerging democracies, what would you say about Press Freedom? Is there anywhere you have seen the best model?  If yes, how does it work? How are they managing?

GN: I have lived in the United States for the past six years. Of course, on a comparative basis, the media in this country enjoy greater freedoms than in my own Zimbabwe. To start with individuals don’t go through stringent registration processes to launch publications or to start a radio station. As a result, even tiny villages, as it were, has its own newspapers or radio station. Journalists are not constantly harassed and hounded out of town or declared enemies of the state merely because they seek to hold officials accountable to the electorate. This is a very open society, which respects the journalist and the role he or she plays in the nation or in the community. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are respected citizens. US journalists do not routinely flee into exile. Instead this nation plays host to multitudes of journalists fleeing from persecution in their own repressive regimes. The situation of press freedom is not perfect even here, however. I arrived in this country during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq by the allied forces. I witnessed first-hand how American journalists allowed their sense of patriotism to cloud their better judgement, something over which they subsequently expressed regret and misgivings as the horror of the Iraq war unfolded. 

MM:This year’s theme is “Dialogue, Mutual Understanding and National Reconciliation” how critical would you say the media is in achieving/effecting this?

GN: Zimbabwe as a nation became politically polarised over the three decades of coercive Zanu-PF dictatorship.  White was set against black, Shona against Ndebele, ruling party supporter against opposition, supporter, Diaspora against homeland, educated against not-so-educated and brother against brother.  Unfortunately the media became too docile, complacent and in some instances obsequious. By way of atonement for past failings I believe the media should now assume a frontline role in rebuilding the nation and in mending bridges of understanding and reconciliation. Zimbabwe is a country endowed with a vast array of resources. With proper planning, initiative and a new vision our economic turn-around programme could be home-grown. The media have a central role to play in that process. But the media have to resume their status as the Fourth Estate, effective in their role as watchdog over those elected to positions of power.

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