More newspapers hit the streets of Harare as Zimbabwe media industry opens up

Newspapers granted licences as part of democratic reform promised in unity agreement signed by Robert Mugabe, the president, and his former rivals in 2008.

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HARARE // There was a surprise on the streets of central Harare one morning recently - newspaper vendors were giving out free copies of a colourful new newspaper, NewsDay. Alpha Media Holdings, the paper's publishing company, had been given an operating licence alongside three other new independent dailies a week before they launched NewsDay on June 4.

Curious Harareans queued up to snatch the first issue of the paper at the corner of Samora Machel Avenue and First Street in downtown. The edition led with a story of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe's plans to retrench 3,000 workers. "I am surprised," said Charles Nerutanga, 29, of Mount Pleasant, Harare. "They only got their licence a few days ago. I didn't expect the paper so soon, but it is pleasing we have another voice."

NewsDay was licensed together with The Mail, The Daily Gazette and The Daily News, with the latter three hitting the shelves in the near future. They enter a market that has been dominated by two government-run dailies since the banning of The Daily News seven years ago. The opening up of the media industry is one part of the democratic reforms announced in a unity agreement signed by Robert Mugabe, the president, and his former rivals, Morgan Tsvangirai and Arthur Mutambara, now prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively, in September 2008.

In 2001, the government enacted a tough media law, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which it used to close four independent newspapers. Three independent weeklies, all sister papers of NewsDay, survived: The Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard and the Financial Gazette. The shrinking of the market caused job losses, which the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) hopes will end with more newspapers coming onto the market.

Dumisani Sibanda, the president of ZUJ, said: "Some employers used to take journalists for granted because they knew that if you left their paper you would be destitute. "It is sad that some employers paid their employees starvation wages, as if we are farm workers. We hope that these new papers will shake up employers. Because there will soon be more papers, there will be competition and ZUJ believes that journalists' salaries and working conditions will improve."

Alpha Media Holdings has invested US$4 million (Dh14.7m) in NewsDay since 2008, creating jobs for 300 people, including about 20 journalists. More media workers will secure jobs when the three other dailies launch operations. Jethro Goko, a senior Zimbabwean journalist based in South Africa and an investor in The Daily News, said the paper could resume circulation in August. Despite initial obstacles, said Trevor Ncube, the chairman of Alpha Media Holdings, he is happy that the paper is finally on the market.

In an opinion piece published in the second issue of the paper, Mr Ncube said NewsDay would strive to be independent and promote diversity of opinions. "We promise to make a difference in this regard by airing a variety of viewpoints," he wrote. "But we promise much else besides. NewsDay will provide a platform for Zimbabweans to talk to each other without fear or favour. It is time to bring a close to the narrow exclusivist nationalism of the past, which has so ill-served us as a nation, setting black against white and black against black. We will celebrate our diversity. We will also strive to be independent of advertisers, interest groups, big business and political parties."

Despite the achievement, Mr Ncube said repressive laws such as the AIPPA, and the Interception of Communications Act, continue to threaten press freedom. The AIPPA provides for jail terms to journalists convicted of writing lies while the Interception of Communications Act allows the government to monitor all private communications between Zimbabweans, typically e-mails, text messages and phone calls.

Media advocates said they hope for further freedoms, both in print and broadcast. Nhlanhla Ngwenya, the director of the Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, an advocacy group, welcomed the licensing of more papers, but was disappointed that the government-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation remains a monopoly. "The airwaves are not democratised yet and that concerns us," Mr Ngwenya said.

"The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, the regulator of the electronic media, has not yet been constituted. Pending its formation, no broadcasters can operate because there is a vacuum in the regulatory framework." "Otherwise, on the print side, the institute is pleased about the new players." Mr Ngwenya said major challenges still face Zimbabwe's print media, including the country's ongoing economic crisis, which stifles the flow of advertising revenue and the numbers of people able to buy papers, as well as the government.

"There are two key challenges that I see facing [newspapers]," he said. "Repressive laws and the bad economy."