The Daily News, Zimbabwe.
‘Courage, resilience and success’: Lifetime Achievement Award winner bolsters women’s voices in Zimbabwean media.
Edna Machirori is always thinking of how to help female journalists in Zimbabwe. A 50-year veteran of the profession, she certainly knows the challenges these women face in addition to reporting the news – a hostile media environment, unfair dismissal, denial of a fair salary.
“I think we need an all-encompassing organization,” she said, “a support unit for the journalists.”
Machirori wants to make sure good writers and reporters aren’t discouraged, that their skills aren’t wasted. “We need these people to tell the story of Zimbabwe objectively,” she said. That’s exactly what Machirori has been doing for a half-century.
Now a freelance journalist and columnist for The Daily News, Machirori has reported for various news organizations despite thorny media and political climates. She was one of the first women in Zimbabwean media and the first black female editor of a newspaper in Zimbabwe. As a woman journalist in post-colonial Zimbabwe, Machirori rose through the ranks of newspapers including The Chronicle and The Financial Gazette, in spite of a deeply patriarchal culture.
“Throughout my career, I have struggled against gender prejudice,” Machirori said. “In a patriarchal society and a profession in which national issues must be debated objectively, the willingness to do so is not necessarily seen as a plus for a woman. Such a woman is seen as an aberration from the norm of what a woman should be: docile and silent.”
Machirori didn’t set out to be a trail-blazing journalist, but she remembers being “glued” to the radio as a child in the 1950s in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. She also loved to read.
“I didn’t make a conscious decision to be a journalist,” she said, but “as a child I was very interested in reading and discovering the meaning of words.”
Machirori’s teachers encouraged her to write in school, and she began writing letters to the editor at the African Daily News, a nationalist newspaper based in Harare – then Salisbury, under colonial rule.
“My teachers were approached and encouraged me to join the newspaper as a cadet journalist, to be trained as a journalist,” said Machirori. “That’s how I started. That was in 1963.”
During her early years with the African Daily News, Machirori was the first woman on the staff at any level. She was the first contributor to a new women’s page, which she used to start dialogue among women about important events in society and politics.
“When I first became a journalist, I didn’t know any other woman – any other black woman – who was doing what I was doing,” she said.
The African Daily News was eventually banned by the colonial government, which was growing increasingly unstable as nationalist movements grew stronger. Machirori occupied several more reporting positions during colonial rule. She left the country from 1974-1979 to earn a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Communications (summa cum laude) from the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT), which she won a scholarship to attend. While there, she received the Alexander Schure Award for outstanding contributions to the communications department.
As she was earning her degree, Machirori was also raising her young daughter. After completing her studies, Machirori worked as a media officer for the Zimbabwe Council of Churches before returning to reporting in 1985, when she joined the staff of The Chronicle, a widely read daily newspaper in Zimbabwe, as a senior reporter. She worked her way through the paper’s ranks, occupying positions as deputy news editor, women’s page editor and, finally, news editor. Machirori rose to this level, previously unoccupied by a woman, during a period of post-colonial instability when women seen walking alone were routinely detained.
At The Chronicle, Machirori took many young women under her wing and taught them to be reporters who excelled in their field, as well as adept professionals who could navigate the discrimination and sexual harassment that plagued women in the media during that time. Many of the women Machirori mentored during the 1980s and 1990s have become editors and managers of news organizations.
“The newsroom was full of abuse and derision of women, particularly young women,” said Doreen Zimbizi, now sub-editor of The Sunday Times in South Africa. “Mrs. Machirori was conscious of this and tried her best to treat us all as professionals where some men only saw us as objects of scorn and sexual exploitation. She advised us on how to navigate our way around this confusing terrain and how to deal with the various challenges.”
“I credit my strength of character to Mrs. Machirori,” Zimbizi said. “She paved the way for myself and many others.”
“I learnt that being female should never stand in the way of my career,” said Matilda Moyo, whom Machirori mentored in the 1980s. “Her rise up the ladder to the rank of editor constantly reminds me that hard work will always be rewarded and that I can be anything I want to be regardless of gender.” Moyo is now a communications specialist with the United Nations.
In 1988, under Machirori’s leadership, The Chronicle published “The Willowgate Scandal,” an investigation into corruption among many high-level members of ruling party ZANU-PF, in which a state-owned vehicle assembly plant was found to be selling its cars on the black market.
As a result of The Chronicle’s reporting, five cabinet ministers and one provincial governor were dismissed. The report also caused considerable backlash from the government and government loyalists, who were angry at the revelations of corruption. At the time, The Chronicle was state-owned.
Machirori became a target of derision among politicians and government loyalists, but she never gave in to government pressure or attempts to censor her work. Her principles made her a target of public ridicule; she was mocked, for instance, by a ZANU-PF official in an open letter to a newspaper.
“What I regret about covering the story is that the government and people of Zimbabwe did not learn any lessons so as to have nipped that cancer in the bud,” Machirori said. “If there had been true openness I don’t think corruption would have become as rampant as it is today.”
The resulting fallout between the government and the media following The Willowgate Scandal led to a prolonged period of censorship and direct attacks on journalists. The editor in chief of The Chronicle, Geoff Nyarota, was removed from his job. Many independent media were shuttered.
“After the Willowgate scandal colleagues of mine paid a high price,” Machirori said, adding that a period of self-censorship followed because “when you try to inquire about any wrongdoing, officials are not pleased and there are a lot of threats.”
But Machirori is firm in her belief that the Willowgate story and other stories of corruption must be told. “As a public official you must subject yourself to scrutiny and you must be accountable,” she said.
In 2004, Machirori took a position as features editor at The Financial Gazette. There, she rose to the rank of deputy editor and wrote two columns, Africa File and Personal Glimpses, both about the state of Zimbabwe’s politics and economy, under a pseudonym.
“That was the first time I really could write about politics and social issues,” she said. “Although as an editor I could comment on certain issues and so forth, it’s different from writing.”
Machirori was found out by ZANU-PF officials in 2006 for her incisive criticism of political corruption. A leading ZANU-PF representative penned a deeply sexist, personal attack of Machirori and published it in a state-run newspaper. Eventually, the Gazette’s editor was suspended from his position by ZANU-PF. Machirori was accused of being a sympathizer of the opposition.
“It’s very difficult for journalists to operate professionally when they are surrounded by a rampantly corrupt atmosphere in our society,” she said. Zimbabwe still faces challenges to freedom of the press under President Robert Mugabe’s government. The country’s free and independent media outlets were gagged in 2002 by the law on Access to Information and Protection of Private Life (AIPPA), according to Reporters Without Borders.
“As far as our constitution is concerned we have the proper legislative framework to protect freedom of speech and the press,” Machirori said, “but the trouble is that there are other laws which cancel these laws, such as AIPPA.”
Official rules and obstructions create difficulty in obtaining information; as a result, many important but sensitive issues don’t get the coverage they deserve, said Reporters Without Borders. In addition, police brutality and injustices toward journalists have often prevented them from doing their jobs.
“In Zimbabwe a journalist can be arrested for anything,” said Machirori. “Peddling ‘falsehoods’ can be anything which is unpalatable to be an official.” Despite these challenges, Machirori believes that steps toward press freedom have occurred throughout her decades in journalism. “I think ‘tremendous’ progress has been made,” she said. “Tremendous in quotation marks because there are restraints as well.”
And Machirori remains concerned that women are still not occupying top spots in newsrooms.
“If you look at the list of editorial staff on the papers you have to go down before you see women,” she said. “I am worried about this attempt to keep women down because they are very capable and I know some who are even better than male colleagues but are passed on promotions.” Ensuring women’s success in newsrooms isn’t an easy task. “There are always attempts to shut women down,” Machirori said. “Women are not allowed to speak their minds and so forth.”
She recalled her own experience taking key male officials to task for their policies or actions. Even some of her colleagues believed when she criticized a minister in an editorial that “it was personal because how could a woman take a man to task?” she said. But Machirori has been steadfast in her goal of writing objectively, regardless of her gender or that of whom she’s reporting on.
Today, she covers development, corruption and social issues as a freelance writer for several publications in Zimbabwe. The ruling ZANU-PF still has a tight hold on media and has given itself full reign to quash any dissenting voice, but Machirori continues to challenge the official line on important issues. She also sits on the Board of the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe and is on the jury of the Federation of African Media Women in Zimbabwe.
Receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women’s Media Foundation means a great deal to her, Machirori said. “It means much more because you don’t get (recognition) here at home,” she said. “It’s bad enough to be ignored for your work, but to be attacked and humiliated as I was, it’s terrible.”
Throughout her career, Machirori has been committed to the value of a free press and the ethics of objective reporting, even when it cost her popularity with the powerful ruling party, her reputation and her job.
“Her story is one of courage, resilience and success. She has shown extraordinary strength and character where many of her male counterparts have allowed themselves to become instruments of those in power,” said Davison Maruziva, one of Machirori’s colleagues at The Chronicle during the 1980s.
One of Machirori’s daughters, Fungai, chose to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a journalist. Fungai’s website, Her Zimbabwe, tackles gender issues.
“It was hard not to fall in love with the media with a mother as passionate about her craft as mine was,” she said. “I feel that my being in the same sector as her is the continuation of the work she and other pioneering women began many years before me. It feels good to be a part of that legacy.”
Edna Machirori’s legacy is a lifelong commitment to journalism and a free press, and it is evident as she works to create a support system for women journalists. Securing funding will likely be difficult, she said, but she is determined to help a new cadre of reporters in Zimbabwe.
“The younger people can learn from the older people,” she said, “and I am happy to say the older people can learn from the younger people.”
In an exclusive interview with the IWMF (see embedded video on the right), Machirori talked about her start in journalism, press freedom in Zimbabwe, and the challenges for women in the news media.
Machirori is the second IWMF Lifetime Achievement Award winner from Zimbabwe, following Peta Thornycroft (2007). In 2002, Zimbabwean journalist Sandra Nyaira won the IWMF Courage in Journalism Award.
This article was written by Lindsey Wray, based on an interview conducted by Onai Petra Paswani-Abote.