Apr 26, 2008

Down and Out in Zimbabwe

New York Times reporter Barry Bearak recounts his ordeal in a Zimbabwe prison after being arrested for "committing journalism" amid a contentious, and likely rigged, presidential election. The results have yet to be released.

In a twist, Bearak appears to owe his freedom in part to Zimbabwe's backward ways. At Bearak's bail hearing, the police chief offered what he thought would be damning of evidence of the reporter's illicit fact-gathering; it turned out to be an article from New York Times-legend Anthony Lewis, written in 1989.

I don't want to minimize or romanticize the ugliness Bearak endured, but given the wretched state of newspapers in this country, it is inspiring to read about a reporter who is most definitely guilty of committing journalism.

I've excerpted a few grafs from the story as appetizers and strongly encourage you to read the entire dispatch:

“Don’t worry, whatever the cells are like I can handle it,” I told her, attempting a tough guy’s bravado. I added a reporter’s inside joke. “Really, anything is better than having to file four stories a day for the Web site.”


The floor was filthy. The odor of human waste infected the air. More bothersome were the bugs. “Cockroaches the size of skateboards,” I quipped. This was hyperbole. The insects were mostly tiny and black, others short, white and wormy. We were soon sharing our clothes with them.


We continued to share our food. But even this enjoyable gesture of charity could trigger regret. During the two daily “counts,” we’d try to note who seemed hungriest: The acrobat? The peddler? The guy in the “69” T-shirt?


He testified that “critical new evidence” had caused the attorney general’s office to reverse its initial decision to let us go, a hasty fiction that was not even loitering in the rough vicinity of the truth.

When asked to provide documentation, he tendered the printout of an article scooped off my desk at York Lodge, something I’d brought to Harare as background for a possible feature article about a political candidate. ...

The article wasn’t mine. It had been written by one of the all-time-greats of The New York Times, Anthony Lewis.

“Can you tell us the date of that article?”

It was published in 1989.

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