Zimbabwe is no longer, as The New York Timesput it back in 1999, “sliding into tyranny.” It has long since arrived. Freelance correspondent Joshua Hammer, who traveled to the country earlier this year, says it’s still possible to do journalism, that is if you pose as a tourist.
BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Brooke Gladstone is away this week. I'm Bob Garfield.
Quote: "Few African countries have followed a more disappointing trajectory over the past two decades than Zimbabwe. Once a model of democracy, law and tolerance this nation is becoming a fearful, militarized autocracy. President Robert Mugabe's latest diatribes against journalists and judges are particularly troubling."
That's from a New York Times editorial in 1999. Fast-forward a decade to the Zimbabwe of today. [CLIPS] MALE CORRESPONDENT: Zimbabwe has banned foreign journalists from covering this election and its aftermath. We're not sure how alert they are to journalists trying to cross here, but we do know they've arrested several journalists, both foreigners and Zimbabweans. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Robert Mugabe was sworn in yesterday following a campaign of violence and voter intimidation. MALE CORRESPONDENT: Government thugs are now hunting down Zimbabweans who can't prove they voted for Mugabe. [END CLIPS] BOB GARFIELD: Zimbabwe is no longer, as The Times put it back then, "sliding into tyranny." The most brutal dictatorship has long since arrived. Only now, the diatribes against journalists, political opponents and others have turned into jailings, beatings and worse.
Freelance correspondent Joshua Hammer wrote about Zimbabwe recently for The New York Review of Books. He says the country began its dramatic descent back in 2000, when President Mugabe initiated a so-called "land reform" program, seizing thousands of farms from white Zimbabweans and giving the lands to friends and cronies with virtually no farming experience at all. JOSHUA HAMMER: The economy collapsed. Unemployment rose to staggering levels. Foreign exchange dried up. Health and education and virtually every sector of society began a steep, dramatic downward slide into the near chaos and total destitution that we have today. BOB GARFIELD: So amid all this chaos comes the election back in the spring, an election Mugabe clearly lost to democratic opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Then what happened? JOSHUA HAMMER: Well, Mugabe and his henchmen did not like the result. According to the terms of the election, Tsvangirai and Mugabe had to participate in a runoff, and the ruling party under Mugabe embarked on the most vicious, brutal campaign of torture and killings and intimidation to cow the opposition and to guarantee Mugabe a victory in this farce of an election that took place last week. BOB GARFIELD: One of the quirks of this period of brutality is that it was widely reported in the West, excuse the expression, pretty much blow by blow. What about the Zimbabweans themselves, were they kept apprised of the situation by the domestic media? JOSHUA HAMMER: The dominant newspaper in the country is The Herald, which is a ruling party mouthpiece that has no credibility whatsoever. There are two opposition newspapers that come out once a week. They reach a very small English-language audience, so have really sort of negligible effect, other than to give people like you and me and Western journalists a non-rantingly pro-Mugabe perspective.
Then there is the state-owned television network, which effectively has made Morgan Tsvangirai and the opposition a non-person, and state-owned radio, which does the same thing.
So the options for people who are, say, out in the bush, rural areas of Zimbabwe, to get any sort of media in information other than what is spoon-fed to by the ruling part, by the ZANU-PF, is really negligible. BOB GARFIELD: Now, tell me about the foreign press. You were in Zimbabwe immediately before the election but were not traveling there with a journalist's visa, you entered as a tourist. Tell me about just the mechanics for a foreign correspondent of reporting there. JOSHUA HAMMER: It's still, believe it or not, reasonably easy to cross over from the Zambian border of Victoria Falls, posing as a tourist. You get stamped at the border, you pay your 20 or 30 U.S. dollars and you're in. Once you get into the country, you have to avoid the big hotels that are hangouts for the Central Intelligence Organization, Mugabe's secret police. You have to travel around with people who know areas to avoid, who know what's safe.
Surprisingly, you can still work under the radar screen. I've been noticing the reporting of a colleague of mine for Newsweek who's managed to do some pretty astonishing reporting over the last week, clearly moving around clandestinely. BOB GARFIELD: I gather that at this stage of the game Robert Mugabe has no interest or probably even fear about what the Western press has to say. This slide into absolute repression has occurred with vilification from the entire Western world and, you know, it hasn't seemed to hinder him in the least. JOSHUA HAMMER: Actually, this is the theme that I'm going to address in an essay in The New York Review of Books this week. What effect, if any, do the Western press, do sanctions from the West, do the constant outspoken criticism of people like Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Great Britain and, to some extent, now, a couple of African leaders, which has been basically unheard of in the past, what effect does this all have on this ruthless, savage regime?
I'm afraid to say that the answer is very little. A dictator like Mugabe, who still has access to a couple of countries that are willing to do business with him, such as China and such as South Africa, can basically do whatever he pleases. The only way to get rid of a guy like Mugabe, I'm afraid to say, is assassination or military intervention. BOB GARFIELD: Or God. The man is 84 years old. JOSHUA HAMMER: Or God. Whichever comes first. BOB GARFIELD: Josh, thank you very much. JOSHUA HAMMER: You're very welcome. BOB GARFIELD: Josh Hammer has been writing about the crisis in Zimbabwe for The New York Review of Books.