Beyond Mugabe's reach?

The recent shooting of an online newspaper editor in South Africa has triggered speculation among exiled Zimbabwean journalists that the Mugabe regime may now be spreading its dreaded tentacles across the border.

Abel Mutsakani, an editor of ZimOnline – a website set up by Zimbabwean journalists in South Africa – was seriously injured after gunmen shot him as he parked his car at his Johannesburg home.

Mutsakani had worked for the Daily News, Zimbabwe’s most popular daily, as managing editor, before President Mugabe shut down the newspaper in 2003. After the closure, Mutsakani and other journalists moved to South Africa to establish ZimOnline, some distance from Mugabe’s reach. But is it far enough?

Since the shooting, exiled Zimbabwean journalists across the world have pondered whether Mugabe had a hand in the attempted murder of the newsman.

Since 2001, more news professionals have gone into exile from Zimbabwe than from any other country, according to watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

It is not just South Africa’s proximity to Zimbabwe that has given rise to speculation about Mugabe’s involvement in the shooting of Mutsakani; it is the general perception that President Thabo Mbeki’s government is, at best, sheepish towards Mugabe and, at worst, complicit with his regime.

Yet it remains conjecture rather than fact that South Africa colludes with Mugabe in tracking down his enemies in the neighbouring state.

While a recent BBC investigation suggested that Mugabe’s fearsome Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) enjoyed unfettered access into South Africa, it was unable to reach a definitive conclusion that Mugabe’s spy agency was targeting members of Zimbabwe’s opposition there.

Debate has erupted among the exiled news professionals after Mutsakani’s shooting. One media group, the South Africa-based Cross Border Association of Journalists (CAJ), quickly issued a statement pointing a firm finger at Mugabe: ‘The Zimbabwean government is now using mafia tactics to silence the independent media ahead of next year’s elections. This is the hand of CIO, which has been working to eliminate independent voices in the country.”

I am, however, dissuaded from rushing into such a categorical conclusion, given Johannesburg’s reputation as the ‘gun capital’of Africa. It is quite possible that the motive for the attack on Mutsakani was criminal rather than political.

Japhet Ncube, news editor of the Star in Johannesburg, is equally sceptical: ‘How do we get the [ruling party] Zanu PF link? Also, why would they come and shoot someone here in Jo’burg when they can’t shoot the journalists and [opposition] Movement for Democratic Change officials roaming the streets of Harare and Bulawayo? I find that very strange.”

But Zimbabwean journalists have reason for trepidation. Early in 2000, suspected CIO agents bombed the offices of the Daily News, and a year later blew up the newspaper’s printing presses in Harare.

Only recently, a freelance cameraman was found dead after he supplied footage of opposition leaders who had been tortured and brutalised by state agents to the international media.

But in Mutsakani’s case, it appears that Mugabe’s infamy with the media has simply preceded him.

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