While some people are accusing the government of over-reacting by closing down the Daily News following the Supreme Court ruling that it was operating illegally, others argue that the publishers of the paper were largely to blame because they had been advised to register first and then challenge the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.
Observers say that the owners of the paper erroneously believed that the government would not ban or shut them down if they did not register because of pressure from both the local and international community.
But the Zimbabwean government has shown over the past four years that it does not care a hoot what the local and international community feels, if it believes that it is right. Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, the architect of the law that requires journalists and newspapers to register with the Media and Information Commission, has vowed that the government will abide by the law and will not entertain any pressure from anyone.
And Moyo is not acting alone. Other government ministries over which Moyo has no control were involved in the shut down demonstrating that this was a coordinated government effort and not just the wish of an individual.
Among those who have described the government’s action as harsh is the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists which is led by Matthew Takaona who is employed by the government-controlled Zimbabwe Newspapers. Takaona said the closure was too harsh considering that it cost about 1 350 employees their jobs. The country already has a high unemployment rate of between 70 and 80 percent.
“This is a disaster for the media in Zimbabwe,” Takaona was quoted as saying. “Although the company might have been wrong in refusing to register, we don’t think closing it (Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe) will do anyone any good ….The fact that the circulation of the Daily News had grown so fast shows that it has a large following among Zimbabweans, so it would be very sad if these people were suddenly denied their source of news.”
The Daily News was the biggest circulation paper in the country though some reports said its circulation had begun to decline.
But the government was in a Catch-22 situation. Allowing the paper to continue would have meant defying the Supreme Court and condoning the Daily News stand that it had not registered because it could not “in good conscience” register under a law which it believed was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court was very forthright. It said the law was valid until the courts declared it invalid, so it had to be obeyed. “..The principle that a citizen who disputes the validity of a law must obey it first and argue afterwards is founded on sound authority and practical common sense,” the court said. “The applicant’s contention that it is not bound by a law it considers unconstitutional is simply untenable. A situation where citizens are bound by only those laws they consider constitutional is a recipe for chaos and a total breakdown of the rule of law.”
The court said it was also significant that only the Daily News had failed to register. According to Moyo, 51 others had registered.
“If the Act was as morally repugnant as the applicant would have the court believe one would have expected more than one conscientious objector,” the court said. “This court is a court of law, and as such, cannot connive at or condone the applicant’s open defiance of the law.”
“Citizens are obliged to obey the law of the land and argue afterwards. It was entirely open to the applicant to challenge the constitutionality of the Act before the deadline for registration and thus avoid compliance with the law it objects to pending a determination by this Court. In the absence of an explanation as to why this course was not followed, the inference of a disdain for the law becomes inescapable,” the court said.
Sources say the Daily News, together with other privately-owned papers such as the Financial Gazette and the Zimbabwe Independent, was advised to register first and then challenge the law. The others registered but the Daily News decided not to register.
This has led to wide speculation that there was more to the paper’s refusal to register than meets the eye. Former editor-in-chief, Geoff Nyarota, one of those who wanted to get the paper registered and then challenge the law was fired in unclear circumstances.
But the demise of the Daily News has turned into a blessing for some of the independent publications, particularly the Financial Gazette, the paper senior staff at the Daily News wanted to cripple.
Almost all the staff that had worked with former Financial Gazette editor-in-chief, Francis Mdlongwa, left the paper to join the Daily News, when Mdlongwa was appointed editor-in-chief of that paper, almost crippling the Financial Gazette. The irony is that when the Daily News was shut down, the Financial Gazette reaped the benefits. Advertisers who had been advertising with the Daily News are now flocking to the Financial Gazette. The paper cannot accommodate all adverts on offer, according to reports.
But the Daily News is far from being dead and buried. Its owner, who some media have dubbed the “Bill Gates of Africa” has vowed to fight to the bitter end. And some people calling themselves Friends of the Daily News have put up a new website. Daily News chief executive, Sam Sipepa Nkomo, however, says he does not know who these people are and they are not doing what they are doing with the blessing of the paper’s executive.