It touts itself as Zimbabwe's independent news agency. But it does not even operate from Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe Online operates from South Africa. The reasons: the “general decimation of media in Zimbabwe”, the enactment of “a vicious media law which enables the government to licence media houses and journalists to do their work, the closure of mainstream newspapers, the routine intimidation and arrests of journalists……”.
ZimOnline was launched on 8 July 2004 to provide an “alternative voice for Zimbabwean journalists” who found themselves restricted in their profession because of the various obstacles that had been imposed by the government. It was meant to be a “professional media project” whose only interest was “an accurate reflection of the true state of affairs in Zimbabwe”. Its mission was “to provide a source of accurate, balanced and in-depth information about Zimbabwe”.
The project has been very secretive about who runs or funds it. Although most of its stories are now by-lined, most of the writers are unknown except perhaps by the editors. The only name that seems to be known is that of Abel Mutsakani who is said to be the online agency’s editor, though another Zimbabwean now based in South Africa Basildon Peta is strongly believed to be the brains behind the project.
With the political and economic turmoil in Zimbabwe, the online agency has become a major source of news for the international community and exiled Zimbabweans who are said to exceed 3 million.
The agency says it operates through a network of experienced correspondents throughout Zimbabwe and seeks to provide accurate and balanced information about the country but some of its stories could be pure fiction.
On Monday, 18 June, for example, it ran a story entitled: Zim opposition activists murdered. The story was datelined Bulawayo and was written by Brian Ncube. It read:
Two Zimbabwe opposition activists abducted from the rural Matobo district by suspected state secret agents were found dead last Thursday, in a development certain to spread fear across the opposition supporting southern half of the country.
The battered bodies of Edward Ndiweni and Albert Sibanda, who were both members of the Morgan Tsvangirai-led MDC party, were discovered by villagers dumped at an abandoned former white-owned farm, about 15 kilometres from the deceased men’s home village.
Police spokesman Wayne Bvudzijena confirmed the discovery of the bodies of the murdered MDC activists and said investigations into the matter were in progress.
“I can confirm that the two were found dead on Thursday . . . police are still investigating the case and we hope we will be able to account for those responsible," said Bvudzijena.
However, MDC Member of Parliament for Matobo Lovemore Moyo immediately blamed the abduction and subsequent murder of the two activists on agents of President Robert Mugabe’s government which he said was out to crush the opposition and all dissenting voices ahead of elections next year.
"It is unfortunate that the government’s intolerance of dissenting voices and its disrespect of the MDC as an opposition party has led to this (murder of Ndiweni and Sibanda)," said Moyo.
Information Minister and government spokesman Sikhanyiso Ndlovu was not immediately available for comment on the matter.
Zimbabwe holds joint presidential and parliamentary elections next year which some analysts have warned the government could lose, citing an acute economic crisis and food shortages fuelling public discontent against Mugabe and his ruling Zanu PF party.
Ndiweni, Sibanda and three other MDC activists were abducted from their homes at different times on May 25 by six armed men who were driving an unmarked red Toyota Corolla car that did not have vehicle registration numbers.
They were taken to a farm not far from their homes but not the same one were (sic) the bodies of the two murdered activists were found. For three days, the opposition activists were severely assaulted and tortured by their captors who accused them of campaigning for the MDC and seeking to topple Mugabe’s government.