Steep production costs and political pressure is making Zimbabwean newspapers financially vulnerable, according to media sources.
"There are exorbitant costs involved. All of us [newspaper publishers] have enormous debts - we owe money to the banks," said publisher and editor Ibbo Mandaza.
"Newsprint accounts for 70 percent of our costs - it costs about Zim $20 million (about US $1,100) a tonne and we require three tonnes a day," noted Mandaza, head of the Southern Africa Publishing House (SAPHO), which owns and prints the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror.
Escalating fuel costs and increasing salaries to keep up with the high inflation rate have also impacted on the company's resources.
Besides the financial costs, Mandaza said he had to contend with the psychological pressure of "safeguarding his journalists every day" - he and two journalists from his publishing house were detained in 1999.
This week Mandaza was busy fielding queries related to a controversial news report claiming that the Mirror group, the Financial Gazette and the suspended weekly, the Tribune, had either been bought or approached with a takeover bid by the Central Intelligence Operation (CIO), Zimbabwe's state security agency.
The report's claims have been shot down by all the publications involved, but it highlighted yet again the vulnerability of the media in a politically charged environment.
"I have a 100 percent stake in SAPHO - I own the publishing house. We have in the past - i.e. before 2003 - received offers from several people we found unsuitable; we have not received any offers since then," Mandaza confirmed. "We might have CIO agents in my newspaper and I will be unable to confirm that - I mean state security agencies across the world have agents in the media - they are all over the place."
Kindness Paradza, publisher of Africa Tribune Newspapers (ATN), which used to print the Tribune newspaper, said in the past he had also been approached with offers, "but I will not be able to confirm whether they were CIO operatives - I wouldn't know".
Paradza has other pressing problems: he is fighting to keep his business afloat after the government-appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC) suspended ATN for a year in June 2004.
Last month the MIC turned down ATN's application to resume publication, saying the company had failed to show that it had enough capital, and because it intended operating from a residence.
"How was I expected to rent business premises if I had not yet been given a licence? Anyway, I have gone ahead and rented premises and met with all the requirements asked, and resubmitted my application last week," said Paradza.
ATN shut down when the MIC ruled that it had failed to inform the commission that The Tribune - initially published on Thursdays as The Business Tribune, and on Saturdays as The Weekend Tribune - had merged into The Tribune, which had gone on sale on Fridays.
The one-year suspension was based on allegations of breaching the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which stipulates that the commission must be informed of any changes in the titles, frequency and ownership of a licensed media house.
"We realise the costs of running the operation - both financially and psychologically - but we are journalists: we cannot earn a living doing anything else," commented Paradza, who has been in the profession for 22 years. ATN is owned by journalists, with Paradza owning a 90 percent stake.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa, a media watchdog, said controversial legislation such as AIPPA had placed an additional burden on journalists in Zimbabwe.
"They have to operate in constant fear of possibly breaching the legislation," commented MISA's Nyasha Nyakunu.
The MIC was set up under Zimbabwe's controversial AIPPA law to license newspapers and journalists. In a high-profile decision in 2004 it denied a licence to Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe (ANZ), which owned two antigovernment papers: the Daily News, once the country's largest selling newspaper, and the Daily News on Sunday.
Despite these pressures, Mandaza said his company had taken out yet another loan to purchase a printing plant recently. "We hope to divert some of the resources that we will now be able to save towards increasing our circulation."
The public's "thirst for information" was what kept publishing houses running, Paradza maintained. "Almost 80 percent of Zimbabwe's population is literate. We already had our niche market because of our middle-of-the-road stance" regarding the government. "With our belief in accurate reporting we hope to maintain our readership - we believe you can do business in Zimbabwe."
Besides the official daily, The Herald, and pro-government The Daily Mirror, Zimbabwe's press stable includes the privately owned weeklies The Financial Gazette, The Independent and The Standard.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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