afrol News, 4 January - The two last independent newspapers of Zimbabwe, both weeklies, are heading towards an uncertain future. The South Africa-based publisher of the 'Zimbabwe Independent' and 'Zimbabwe Standard' newspapers has been stripped off his Zimbabwean citizenship, and is thus according to national laws not allowed to own local media outlets.
Trevor Ncube owns both of Zimbabwe's remaining independent weeklies, and the Zimbabwe-born editor and businessman in 2002 also bought the prestigious South African newspaper 'Mail & Guardian'. Since that, Mr Ncube has spent most of his time in South Africa.
This situation has now been exploited by Zimbabwe authorities, who refused to renew the passport of Mr Ncube, thus effectively stripping him of his citizenship.
Zimbabwe's Registrar General, Tobaiwa Mudede, said Mr Ncube had forfeited his citizenship because he did not renounce his right to a Zambian passport in 2001, according to the government mouthpiece 'The Herald'. Zimbabwe's laws forbid dual citizenship. "His failure to comply with the requirement to renounce Zambian citizenship by descent within the prescribed period automatically meant loss of Zimbabwean citizenship," Mr Mudede was quoted as saying by the 'Herald'.
The media owner however has not accepted Mr Mudede's decision, saying it is based on false premises. Mr Ncube holds that he was born in Zimbabwe, that both his parents were Zimbabwean citizens and that he has never held a Zambian passport - thus not needing to renounce Zambian citizenship. A year ago, the Harare government seized his passport in a move that was overturned by the courts.
In what all media analysts perceive as an attack against Zimbabwe's last sources of independent information, Mr Ncube may be forced to give up his ownership in the two newspapers. Zimbabwe's draconic Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) bans foreigners from controlling any local media house.
Press freedom organisations today reacted angrily to what they called the "Zimbabwean government's attempt to close the country's last independent newspapers." The World Association of Newspapers and the World Editors Forum called for the ceasing of the "indefensible persecution" of Mr Ncube.
The Zimbabwean Media and Information Commission in a statement read out on state television today however reacted to these allegations, saying the two papers will be allowed to continue publishing. The Commission said it was "outraged by a campaign of disinformation originating from publisher Trevor Ncube's papers suggesting that the commission is somehow behind the case between Mr Ncube and the registrar general's office and is about to close Mr Ncube's two weekly newspapers."
"The [Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act] in fact allows any newspaper already publishing at December 31 2002 to maintain their ownership and shareholding structure even when shareholders are foreigners," the statement further said. This was also the conclusion in an articles published today in Mr Ncube's 'Mail & Guardian' newspaper.
Mr Ncube himself sees the government's attempt to strip him of his citizenship more as a general policy of intimidation against potential critics of the Mugabe regime, not directed so much against him personally. "Any Zimbabwean now is going to think twice before they express themselves on anything, because the fear of losing one's passport becomes a way of censoring oneself," he said in a recent interview with the US broadcaster PBS.
The action against Mr Ncube has nevertheless come as a surprise. So far, the Mugabe regime did not really feel threatened by these two weeklies, Zimbabwean journalists told afrol News as the independent 'Daily News' was battling to survive. The 'Daily News' reached a large readership on a daily basis and had a large impact on the forming of an opposition to the regime.
According to these journalists, Mr Ncube's two weeklies have never had the same mass readership, and their weekly nature made them less threatening to the Mugabe regime - despite the fact that they publish biting government criticism. Zimbabwe media insiders further told afrol News that Mr Ncube, being aware of these government calculations, avoided exploiting the obvious market for an independent daily, and kept his two newspapers weeklies to avoid confrontation.
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