The Independent is exerting high-level pressure behind the scenes to ensure that its Zimbabwe correspondent, Basildon Peta – revealed this week as the top target of President Robert Mugabe’s hit list of his country’s journalists – comes to no harm.
The newspaper is believed to be in contact with the Foreign Office and the Government and to have called on its sister papers in Independent News & Media, which have a substantial presence in South Africa, for support. Peta also writes for the company’s Johannesburg Star.
The Independent was in constant touch with Peta, monitoring his safety, said editor Simon Kelner. "We are doing everything we can to help and protect him," he said.
Alex Duvall Smith, the paper’s Africa correspondent, is also in close contact with Peta. It was her story on Wednesday – as much as Peta’s front-page declaration of his intention to stay "to tell the truth" despite the danger – which showed just how many Zimbabwe journalists were on Mugabe’s hit list.
But it was Peta’s impassioned reasoning behind his decision to stay, despite waiting for detectives to come for him, which made the front-page splash so compelling.
"Is it better to be a living coward than a dead hero? This is the macabre question I am asking myself after discovering my name is at the top of a hit list of those to be targeted by President Robert Mugabe’s thugs.
"This is not a good time to be a journalist trying to tell the truth in Zimbabwe," wrote Peta.
Kelner told Press Gazette: "Peta is very pleased with the article. In his position, the most important thing is to get his message out to the world. There is an argument that this article would put him in less, rather than more, danger because he is now high profile and people will be looking out for what happens to him. One of the difficult balances is that Mugabe will now see him as a running dog of imperialist Britain."
Peta has written for The Independent for more than 18 months. It has not tried to persuade him to come out of Zimbabwe.
Kelner said: "We have talked about it and to him and he’s talked to his lawyer. He felt this was an important piece and is pleased it has got the prominence it deserves. But it came from him – it was his impetus."
The hit list follows bans on foreign journalists and legal action against the editor and journalists of Zimbabwe’s independent Daily News.
By Jean Morgan