Usually when I get an sms (text message) from a young journalist needing to see me, it’s about career advice. But when I get one from a young journalist from Zimbabwe, I know it’s because that young journalist needs bread—and not of the cash kind.
Robert Mugabe’s government has clamped down on the independent media with draconian media laws and, after bombing its presses, shut down in 2003 the Daily News, the leading independent daily in Zimbabwe. Dozens of Zimbabwe journalists have fled the country, making them the world’s largest group of journalists in exile.
Some stayed, like the one who recently sent me that cry for help. And they have been struggling to survive along with tens of thousands of other Zimbabweans who have seen their country go from the region’s breadbasket to its basket case.
I first met this young journalist in 2005 outside of the courthouse where the opposition leader, Morgan Tsvengirai, was about to learn whether a charge of treason against him would be dismissed or if he would face it and the possibility of death.
This young man stood out in the crush of journalists waiting for the gates to open—not least because he was wearing a business suit, shirt and tie, unlike the rest of casually dressed scribes and camera operators in their traditional attire of blue jeans and T-shirts. And when the doors opened and the hordes charged forward hoping for a front-row seat, he was standing in front of me, but stood aside for me to pass.
“Aren’t you coming?” I asked. “No,” he responded, “No credentials.” After the case was dismissed, I went looking for the well-dressed young man. I persuaded him to show me what he was seeing on a daily basis, rather than what journalists like myself, who were only given permission to enter the country on rare occasions, get to see.
Over the next few hours, what I saw gave the lie to the regime’s claim that the seizure of white farms was meant to return the land to the black people to whom it historically belonged.
That day he showed me farms now owned by Mugabe’s cronies and supporters; he showed me burnt-out shacks that had belonged to poor black farmers who were removed shortly thereafter to make way for more of the same – cronies and supporters. (Most of the white farmers have left the country and set up shop elsewhere—some as far as Nigeria. But the over 200,000 black farm laborers had no cushions and no options. They stayed and suffered.)
My young friend was in his late twenties and well on his way to being a fine reporter when the Mugabe hammer struck down his paper. He struggled for a while to document the weight of the sorrow of the average Zimbabwean; he risked his own freedom to sneak into Internet cafes in the middle of the night, when the omnipresent state security details might be asleep or otherwise occupied, to download stories onto the Internet. But while that got out some truth, it didn’t put bread, let alone meat, on the table.