For decades, Zimbabwean journalist
Wilf Mbanga has been championing human rights and press freedom. Disillusioned
with working for the government-controlled media, Mbanga in 1999 founded the
Daily News, the only newspaper in Zimbabwe that dared to criticise the ruling
Zanu-PF regime. Since then its reporters have been locked up, its editors
arrested and Wilf himself has spent time in jail.
closed down the Daily News last year and Wilfred Mbanga has been officially
declared an ‘enemy of the people'. He is now spending a year in the Netherlands
as guest of the city of Tilburg. The city's "Vrijplaats", or open-place project
offers sanctuary for a year to a writer or journalist who has been persecuted.
You may be surprised to learn that the man who is such a thorn in the side of
Robert Mugabe was once the President's friend.
Mugabe´s side: Wilfred
"I first met him in 1974", says
Wilf. "I was the first journalist to do his biography for the newspaper and I
got to know him very well. I spent a lot of time with him and we got on very
well. We shared many things in common, we liked the same music – Jim Reeves, Pat
Boone, Elvis Presley!"
This report was featured on A Good life. Click to listen to the
programme in full. (29:30)
Wilf was impressed with Mugabe's political
philosophy at that time. "He was talking of non-racism, and I really thought he
was the best bet for Zimbabwe." But improvements to education, health and the
standard of living in Zimbabwe have been overshadowed by Mugabe's increasingly
repressive regime. Wilf says "today doctors are tearing down curtains to make
bandages for their patients. In schools now there's 40 percent absenteeism, and
the quality of life has really gone down."
It was in 1995 that Wilf realised things were going seriously wrong in
Zimbabwe, and his one-time friend was losing his way. Wilf says his position on
a government newspaper was becoming untenable.
"I was becoming vocal and people
knew I was no longer a supporter, I was actually a critic of Mugabe, and so I
left to start my own paper."
Wilf persuaded a number of people to invest in the launch of the Daily News.
The paper quickly garnered a reputation for being fiercely critical of the
Mugabe regime. "Our motto was telling it like it is. Tell the story without
embellishment. In no time it became the largest-selling newspaper in the
There was a lot of corruption, people were being killed
by paramilitaries, the police were arresting people, torturing people. I felt
that there was a need to bring this out into the open." The government responded
by first arresting the newspaper vendors on the streets, then they started
arresting the journalists and the editors. Finally they arrested Wilf. "I was
locked up in a filthy cell with 13 other criminals", he recalls. "Then when we
went to court and the case was dismissed on the grounds that there was no
charge; I mean it was just a trumped up charge."
The harassment didn't stop there for Wilf. "They continued to tap my
telephone, follow me, and I used to have people in my garden at night, prowling,
and when I got up they would run away, and this would happen over and over
during the night."
"One day I got an invitation, from an organisation called the Tilburg
Vrijplaats. They'd heard about my problems and they invited me to come and spend
a year away from my problems in Zimbabwe." Wilf says the offer of sanctuary from
the city of Tilburg as coming at just the right time. "It was a few months
before the paper was banned, and it came at a time when Mugabe was increasingly
becoming paranoid about the media. I managed to get out before I needed to. I
was just one step ahead of them."
The Vrijplaats project started at the time Iran declared
a Fatwa against Salman Rushdie. A number of cities in Europe declared themselves
cities of refuge for writers or journalists who've been persecuted in their
countries. In the Netherlands, it was the cities of Amsterdam and Tilburg.
Six months into the programme, Wilf is making the most of having a platform
to bring attention to what's going on in Zimbabwe. "I've been given a column in
the Brabants Dagblad, a weekly column, I write every Wednesday about my
experiences in the Netherlands, and I compare my life here with my experiences
It's no coincidence that Wilf's
weekly column in the provincial newspaper is called "I write as I please". "It's
a fantastic experience to be able to write as I think, without worrying about
whether those men in dark glasses will be following me today, or if the police
will knock on my door in the middle of the night. I'm absolutely free."
Wilf may be envious of the freedom the press in the Netherlands enjoys, but
he admits he's been disappointed with the way the Western media in general are
covering Zimbabwe. "They've not got to grips with the real story. The story that
they've been telling has actually helped to perpetuate the myth that Mugabe is
taking the land from white farmers and giving it to blacks. And it's nothing of
the sort. He's taking land from white farmers and giving it to his cronies. And
also the number of people who've been killed, maimed or tortured isn't coming
out in the media here in Europe."
9/11 made matters worse
According to Wilf, the lack of coverage
isn't just due to the fact that Western journalists are banned from
No matter how difficult life is in
Zimbabwe, being away from home isn't always easy either says Wilf. "I feel
frustrated that I can't do anything, but also I realise that if I'd been in
Zimbabwe I wouldn't have been able to achieve anything but be harassed. At least
I'm able to spread the word from here which I wouldn't have been able to do from
Zimbabwe." Wilf fears the future for Zimbabwe is a bleak one.
"I think 9/11 has been responsible for a lot of our problems. It has diverted
attention to Afghanistan and Iraq. So the attention of the world is in that
area, and nobody's interested in Africa anymore. Mugabe is free to do as he
pleases, nobody is watching him."
"The problem is that some of the democratic institutions like the judiciary
and the civil service have been damaged. The police force is now politicised.
The army is politicised, the economy has been damaged. Even if there was a
settlement tomorrow, it's going to take another 20 to 30 years to actually get
back to where we were."
On to London
Wilf is now just over half way through his time in the
Netherlands. Going back to Zimbabwe at the end of the programme is out of the
question, so he will head to London to continue his work there. But he says, he
will never forget the Netherlands, and in particular the hospitality of the City
"The biggest memory will be the general spirit of the Dutch people, it's
something that has really touched us, how they've welcomed us into their homes.
They really have been fantastic, this is something we will always remember, with
affection, and we just love the people