Reporting from political hot spots is not a glamorous job, veteran journalist Peta Thornycroft warns. To be successful, you need a logical and methodical way of working, including meticulous planning for transportation, shelter and even having “cover stories” if you are questioned by those who do not support press freedom.
Thornycroft, who covered South Africa’s violent transition from apartheid in the early 1990s and gave up her British citizenship in 2002 so she could continue reporting from Zimbabwe, takes risks and endures hazardous living situations, including detention by Zimbabwean police in March 2002. In 2007, she was honored by the International Women’s Media Foundation with its lifetime achievement award. (See “Foundation Honors Courageous Women Journalists.”)
Africa News Report asked why, after more than 35 years as a journalist, she continues to put herself in danger. “I can’t rush off and be an electrician or do something else. I don’t know how to do anything else,” she joked.
In a more serious vein, Thornycroft said she feels a commitment to report what is happening in Zimbabwe, but calls it a “hideous assignment.” She added that she worries that her years watching patterns of repression and despair under the rule of President Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have made her grow “quite blunted” emotionally. She also has grown tired of constantly living out of suitcases and hiding her identity. “Technically, as a freelance journalist working for yourself, it’s grueling. It’s not just worrying about whether you’re going to be arrested or not being able to get comments,” she said.
A low profile and lying
Her years reporting from places like Zimbabwe and South Africa have taught her lessons she can pass along to others assigned to cover global hot spots. Her first advice is to remain calm and composed while on the job, with the goal of maintaining a low profile.
“Blend in, if possible, without having a notebook in your hand so you don’t look like a journalist,” she counsels. She advises learning the local circumstances, culture and some of the language before the assignment — and developing a heightened awareness of potential dangers. “One develops a sixth sense,” she says, comparing the relative ease of veteran Zimbabwean journalists in avoiding trouble, as opposed to newly arrived reporters who tend to “get chopped the first.”
Thornycroft admits to having become an “extremely efficient liar” when confronted by Zimbabwean authorities or other suspicious people. Because she is white and unknown outside of Harare, she meticulously plans her cover stories for anyone who asks what she is doing. “”I never, ever admit I’m a journalist,” she said. She is also very careful about where she goes. In some parts of Zimbabwe, “I just know it would be the end of me in 10 minutes!”
She supports the idea of journalists covering a country for no longer than three years and then moving on because longer stays increase the risk of crossing the line between journalism and activism. Activism not only threatens a reporter’s balance, but also can be dangerous, according to Thornycroft, because “you will do things you would not do if you were just involved professionally.”
Thornycroft said her experiences in Zimbabwe led her to depend on sources much more than during her period covering South Africa’s violent transition in the early 1990s from apartheid to its first democratic election in 1994.
More people died from political violence during those years than during all of the rest of the apartheid era, she said. “I could do a hard news story every day without a contact because people were being killed in front of my eyes,” she recalled. Zimbabwe’s struggle has been measured out in a different kind of carnage. “ZANU-PF knows that if you kill people, you get headlines in newspapers. So … what they did was they beat people. They maimed them most dreadfully,” she said, with as many as 30 percent of the more than 3,000 injured during the 2008 political violence left with lifelong disabilities.
In its annual report on human rights, the U.S. State Department concluded that during 2008, along with the injured and more than 30,000 people displaced, Mugabe’s government “or its agents” had killed more than 193 citizens in political violence and engaged in “the pervasive and systematic abuse of human rights.” (See “Zimbabwe’s Political Crisis Tied to Rights Abuses in 2008.”)
Thanks to her sources, Thornycroft was able to write stories on election vote rigging and the Mugabe regime’s premeditated campaign of violence against supporters or suspected supporters of its political opposition. But her reliance on these sources also left her with an ethical dilemma. Good reporters push very hard to get sources identified “on the record” to fully identify the origins of information in a story. But Thornycroft usually cannot reveal details that would expose her sources’ identities because doing so would put them at risk. “You can’t tell it all, can you? Because it may lead to them being identified, and that is just hideous,” she said. “It really dilutes your story. But you’ve just got to do it.”
Thornycroft said she cannot get comments from the government to try to balance her articles. “I phone up ZANU-PF and they hang up on me. They still do it.”
In Zimbabwe, change is coming slowly, and Thornycroft says no one should expect Mugabe to relinquish power without a fight. In covering the democratic opposition, she urges younger Zimbabwean journalists not to repeat the mistakes of those who overlooked ZANU-PF’s shortcomings in celebration of the country’s 1980 independence. “They’re going to have to realize that politicians are still politicians. And if they were the good guys yesterday, they may not always be the good guys, and they must keep their eyes open,” she said.