A Zimbabwean newsroom chronicle:Tinashe Mushakavanhu

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by  Tinashe Mushakavanhu

In 2002 I was rejected from journalism school because I didn’t have a pass in O-Level maths. The rebuff was devastating. Reluctantly, I went on to major in English and Communications graduating top with a first class honors. In hindsight, I am glad things shaped the way they did. Journalism training in Zimbabwe is poor and unimaginative. By default, I had to self-train as a journalist, starting as a stringer for a small community newspaper in my hometown of Gweru, situated in Zimbabwe’s midlands. It was 2004 and I was 21.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu

Tinashe Mushakavanhu

Exactly ten years later I was appointed as the first Online Editor at The Financial Gazette, Zimbabwe’s oldest private newspaper, which started in 1969. My brief tenure there was eventful and tumultuous. I had too many clashes with our CEO who despised everything my job represented — an agent of change who was in the process exposing not only his incompetence’s but also his inability to make the organisation adapt to the rapid changes affecting the media today. In his interactions with staff, he directly and indirectly communicated as if there are two classes of people — bosses and workers. After a year I felt that I had learned all that The Financial Gazette could teach me. The organisation was as rigid as a military establishment.

I made friendships in the small newsroom; most of the reporters were ‘industry veterans’ who had been in journalism for a decade or more. Conversations with them all were very illuminating. In any organisation there is always that one person who embodies its soul. For me, the eccentric genius at the publication was Sunslee Chamunorwa, former editor of the paper, who has since been elevated to an obscure senior editorial post. I often had long chats with him in his office and as ever was always charmed with his perceptive thinking and analysis of issues. He called everyone, “mpfanha” and often made a good joke out of every interaction. We both shared a love for books and quality journalism. Here was a man who agreed and disagreed with you in grace with equal measure. He is no doubt one of the best editors in Zimbabwe that has not been celebrated enough. I wait to read the chronicles of his years in journalism.

Fingaz House at the corner of Harare Street and Speke Avenue, in the periphery of the Harare CBD, does not fit the stature of the paper. It is a non-descript building with peeling paint and an off-colour look with some broken upper windows. An unused section of the building looks desolate. The shutters in the lower windows are always closed. Many often whisper that it is one of the offices for the dreaded CIO. Outside there is no signage for people to know that it is a newspaper office. Next-door is the former Libyan High Commission that has not opened its doors since Gadhafi was toppled. The first time I had been to the building was a year prior to my appointment for a job interview.

The trouble with The Financial Gazette, like many other Zimbabwean newspapers, is that it does not make money and operates on losses. Everything is done in a cutting corners fashion. My appointment was just to tick the box. The practical effect on me of the paper’s multiple defects was that I had to run a department by myself with no tools of the trade such as smartphones, tablets, cameras and even worse I had no team. Reporters were often reluctant to assist because they argued it was beyond what they were being paid for. So often I had to get out of bed extremely early to be in the office by 4am. By the time the rest of the staff arrived for work, I would still be at my desk assuming many personas at the same time — web administrator, social media editor, online reporter, etc. They would say, “asi unorara pano here?” Do you sleep in the newsroom?

My other duties included writing the leader page for the paper with the unsigned editorials and also managing the ‘Letters to the Editor’ section. Some of my leaders would often get responses from The Herald and The Sunday Mail in opinion pieces penned by the ZANU PF apologists and anonymous hacks, Nathaniel Manheru and Bishop Lazarus. In the early days I was often called to the editor’s office for verbal reprimands against writing about Robert Mugabe who at the face of it is the source of so much that has gone wrong in Zimbabwe. The most I can say is that I never wrote a leader that I could not defend. How do you whitewash poverty or tyranny?

I learnt quickly that not everything readers read from newspapers is necessarily true. I faced the dilemma that all reporters or junior editors face in controlled media: do you attempt to write what really goes on and get the boot and live to be a newsroom legend, or do you keep your mouth shut, write anodyne nonsense and enjoy the mediocrity?

I focused on the job at hand. Before my arrival The Financial Gazette was then in local media circles a laughing stock and described as an “information dinosaur” an enduring characteristic that is even caricatured in contemporary literature. In Tendai Huchu’s latest novel, The Maestro, The Magistrate & The Mathematician (2014) one of the characters who lives in the diaspora often tries to access the paper’s website but it is always down and has given up trying to read it. However, the positive aspect of this whole experience for me was the spirit of pioneer liberty I enjoyed. Free from the inhibiting precedents of work done before, I had the freedom to build a new system of doing things and in the process challenge assumptions about the function and style of our organisation. I just had to invent things as I went along.

Looking from the outside, The Financial Gazette seems bigger than it actually is. Those who worked there before now sarcastically call it “the former pink paper.” It has literally and figuratively gone off-colour. For instance, it is the leanest newsroom I have ever been. Like in a small community newspaper, there are only five full time reporters. It did not take me long to find out that everyone else in the newsroom was as bored with their job as I was, but since they had been at it longer, they had all found other ways to keep them going.

Politicians should never own newspapers. For a long time I only knew that the owner of the paper was referred to as “the shareholder.” And only the top editors had access to him or his vast business enterprises. One of the common refrains to a reporter from the editor was often to spike a story by invoking this nameless shareholder. It is now public knowledge from the recently released Information Media Panel of Inquiry (Impi) report (2015) that Gideon Gono, former governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, owns the paper 100%.

I have never seen such a disinterested media owner whose only passion is exercised when he is wasting column inches to rebut the many allegations that his erstwhile colleague and former adviser Munyaradzi Kereke levels against him or when he is disputing corruption charges from other quarters. The paper is nothing but a political tool against the owner’s real or perceived enemies and a PR platform for the enhancement of his own political ambitions.

When my contract came to an end I did not think twice. I left the job out of my own volition. I had to save myself from a slow and corrosive death.

The original article was published at https://medium.com/@tinsmush/full-disclosure-dc0c25f3edd0

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