- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 19, 2003

Mugabe to quit?
Journalists sometimes speak of one news organization or another "owning" a story, meaning it got on the story first and continued to break developments until the issue came to be associated with that news outfit.
The Washington Times last week "owned" the story that officials of Zimbabwe's ruling party had spoken to the opposition about an early retirement for President Robert Mugabe and a power-sharing arrangement to follow until new elections could be held.
Only time will tell whether what we owned was a diamond or a paste imitation.
The notion that Mr. Mugabe might step down under pressure from his own party first appeared Sunday afternoon on the Associated Press wire from Harare, the Zimbabwe capital, but did not turn up on any other news agency to which we subscribe.
There were other reasons for caution. While it has been widely reported that Zimbabwe is in the middle of a drought and famine, exacerbated by Mr. Mugabe's own policies, we had seen nothing to suggest that the president was not firmly in control of his party and the country.
But the AP item which reflected reporting in the local Harare press was persuasive for other reasons. It identified by name two top figures in Mr. Mugabe's party who were said to have made the proposal and, more important, it said the news agency had confirmed the offer with opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who has been consistently straightforward and truthful in his political challenge to Mr. Mugabe. There were several quotes from Mr. Tsvangirai explaining his reasoning in agreeing to consider the offer.
Satisfied that Mr. Tsvangirai was unlikely to have made such comments lightly, we ran the story under the byline of AP reporter Angus Shaw at the top of Monday's World page. Only the lack of confirmation from Mr. Mugabe himself who was out of the country on vacation at the time kept it off the front page.
A stringer steps in
By the time we came to work on Monday, the Reuters news agency had filed its own story from Harare saying both the government party and Mr. Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change were "vigorously" denying the reports in the local media. Armed forces chief Vitalis Zvinavashe, who had been named by the AP as one of the mediators who first broached the idea, was quoted as calling the reports "the work of enemies bent on destroying Zimbabwe."
Was the original report untrue then, or were the people who had made the offer simply running for cover now that it had become public? Having worked for a wire service myself, I was well aware of the temptation to knock down and discredit a competing reporter's story. I wanted to see how the AP would follow up its own report.
But as the afternoon wore on, nothing came across on the AP wire, despite a promise from its foreign desk in New York that a story was in the works. All we had was a short item from the London Daily Telegraph syndicate saying Harare was buzzing with talk about Mr. Mugabe's imminent retirement, in spite of the denials.
At that point we turned for help to Johannesburg-based free-lance reporter Geoff Hill, who has covered the Zimbabwe story for some time and has a Rolodex full of cell-phone numbers for leading political figures in that country.
Mr. Hill gave us an article for Tuesday's paper that met our needs. He fully reported the denials from both sides, but also managed to leave open the possibility that the original story had been correct.
Mr. Mugabe had indeed made it known he would like to retire, Mr. Hill was able to report from his own sources in Zimbabwe. "I think he would like to go, but no one has the courage to actually confront him," he quoted a senior member of the president's party as saying.
We also included a couple of paragraphs from the Telegraph on the excitement the story had caused in Harare, noting that all the daily papers in Harare had sold out by 9 a.m.
This newspaper has never been shy about pursuing a story when we think we have it right, and we were true to form this time. We asked Mr. Hill to come back with yet another story exploring what Mr. Mugabe might do if he did step down.
That story ran on Wednesday's front page, noting Mr. Mugabe's fears for his safety inside his own country and mentioning nations where he might seek exile if he felt he would be safer abroad.
David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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