A LEAKED Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) report on the dire situation at privately-owned publishing house Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) exposes the rot at the company, accentuated by spooky manoeuvres of former editor-in-chief Wisdom Mdzungairi who quit in a huff after a scandal exploded in his face amid stunning revelations that he is secretly on the government payroll.
AMH is owned by local publisher Trevor Ncube and President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son-in-law Gerald Mlotshwa. It is run by chief executive Kenias Mafukidze, who is also a board member of the state-owned National Railways of Zimbabwe.
The dramatic events at AMH have laid bare the decay at the company due to extended periods of mismanagement at what used to be an authoritative publishing group, now reduced to a playground for agents of media capture.
Mdzungairi resigned from the NewsDay under a cloud of controversy as he did at the state-controlled Herald over a decade ago where he left as deputy news editor amid tensions after he had hijacked a reporter’s trip to Zambia and kept a company pool car at home while it was urgently needed at work.
As a result, he clashed with top management and was forced to leave, later joining the NewsDay in 2010.
The CIO report, done in October last year, said there are serious internal problems at AMH, one of the biggest media groups in the country, particularly a chronic financial crisis which has disrupted critical operations, affecting staff morale and work ethic in the process.
Only last week, workers were refusing to knuckle down without pay.
Paying workers peanuts, and almost always late at that, is a perennial problem at the AMH.
Insiders describe it as a cancer. Mdzungairi reportedly told one of his close friends it was one of the issues which drove him to seek secret jobs and engage in astonishing double-dipping.
However, there is more to this than meets the eye.
The CIO report said Mdzungairi’s situation at the AMH had become untenable at the end of last year; so he was living on borrowed time. It said it was only a matter of time before he was booted out of the media house where he had been working for 12 years, while doing some other secret things for personal financial benefit.
Given the size and influence of the AMH on the Zimbabwean media landscape and Mdzungairi’s position, as well as the role of the CIO and Mnangagwa’s spokesman George Charamba’s catalyst trigger, the issue inevitably snowballed into a massive scandal.
In other countries where media is central to public life and debate in society, it would have raised a storm.
AMH publishes some of the country’s key newspaper titles, NewsDay, Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard and online radio and television platform, Heart & Soul.
So public interest in the story is indisputable.
Mdzungairi’s imminent departure from NewsDay came to light after a local prominent publisher, who ran a media group that was secretly seized by the local intelligence agency before its collapse upon exposure of the capture scandal in 2005, got sight of the report, which piqued his interest.
In 2005, the CIO was exposed by a local journalist for clandestinely taking over the Daily Mirror and Sunday Mirror when the publisher in question was at the helm of the group.
After the CIO report — written with the wilful help of a senior AMH journalist — came to light, the publisher called Mdzungairi over for a meeting at his Belgravia offices in November last year to find out if he was fine and what the issue was.
During the meeting, Mdzungairi told the publisher that he was aware of efforts by his AMH rivals to remove him and who was actually behind the move. At that point, the former editor sounded resigned to his fate and was merely awaiting D-Day, sources said.
On Monday, Mdzungairi finally threw in the towel after his cover was blown as it was revealed he is covertly on the government payroll and for his attendant dodgy clandestine activities, including holding two full-time jobs simultaneously in gross violation of his employment contract and media ethics.
The situation was worsened by his endless fights with senior colleagues and reporters at work – his trademark during his divisive, undecorated and eminently forgettable editorial reign at AMH.
His colleagues, especially AMH editors and reporters, celebrated his departure.
The most scathing comment about his downfall came from his former deputy at NewsDay Nqaba Matshazi who tweeted: “It seems Zerubabel Mudzingwa is the new editor of NewsDay after the inglorious exit of Wisdom Mdzungairi. This ends the tenure of probably the worst editor under the sun. How Trevor (Ncube) stuck to that guy for so long beggars belief.”
Mudzingwa is actually now acting editor. The Standard editor, Kholwani Nyathi, was appointed in an acting capacity to replace Mdzungairi as AMH editor-in-chief.
Charamba blew his cover
From nowhere, Charamba catalysed the process of blowing Mdzungairi’s cover and subsequent removal on Twitter on 15 January without naming him. Curious journalists took the lead and investigated.
In a matter of 24 hours, his cover was blown to smithereens. Under pressure, he resigned in ignominy on Monday.
Charamba’s motive has raised eyebrows in the corridors of power, given that Mdzungairi and the NewsDay — supported by Ncube in their ill-fated political agenda — doggedly backed Mnangagwa to come to power through a coup in 2017.
After the coup, Ncube was rewarded with an appointment to the Presidential Advisory Council (PAC), which he thought was a big break, where he acted as Mnangagwa’s publicist in charge of media and communication.
He had also joined Mnangagwa’s government looking for radio and television licences, as well as an opportunity to revive his faltering financial fortunes after he was forced out of the Mail & Guardian newspaper in South Africa in 2017 due to his failed publishing adventure there.
After the media picked Charamba’s lead and curiously probed, Mdzungairi’s fate was sealed — in just a few hours.
While he was still AMH editor-in-chief and NewsDay editor, Mdzungairi secretly got on the government payroll after securing another job as deputy communication director at the ministry of Local Government, sources said. The disclosure of the scandal precipitated his resignation and unceremonious departure.
A source said: “His double-dipping was grossly unethical, unprofessional and breached the terms and conditions of his employment contract.
“Besides, it also violated media ethics and core principles of journalism. You cannot be a government public relations officer in the morning and editor of a private newspaper in the afternoon at the same time. The conflict of interest is scandalous. It’s unheard of. Even in Banana Republics they don’t do such things.”
Among many other journalism ethics such as accuracy, factuality, impartiality, truthfulness, and responsibility, editorial independence — which Mdzungairi brazenly sabotaged — is critical.
It is the lifeblood of journalism integrity and credibility — the currency of any media organisation.
By working for the Zanu PF government while he was editor of a supposedly private media organisation, Mdzungairi had crossed the red line in terms of conflict of interest and compromising editorial independence. By being on a government payroll, that also put his colleagues at risk as their vulnerabilities were magnified by his dishonesty.
“That behaviour is a scandal of gargantuan proportions,” another source continued.
“Journalists must be independent voices; we should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or government. We should declare to our employers, editors — or audiences — any of our political affiliations, employment/financial arrangements or other personal information that might constitute a conflict of interest, but he didn’t do that.”
Sources say Mdzungairi had always been on the edge, hunting for secret side hustles.
“He had previously done side hustles in addition to his full-time job, but this time — which was similar to what he did in 2019 — he crossed the line,” the source added. “But that is not the only problem. The question is why was he doing such things? Was it for money or other motives? What impact did such activities have on AMH, reporters and its journalism?”
A Local Government ministry source said Mdzungairi started the process of surreptitiously seeking a job there in September last year. After interviews, he was hired to start working on probation from 1 November 2022 as deputy communication director.
“His hunt for this particular job started way back in August-September. He was given the job to start at the beginning of November last year; 7 November to be specific. As a result, he took leave for the whole of November to secretly work at the ministry. When his leave expired on 30 November 2022, he came back to work last month; December 2022, but he was hardly around for long periods,” the ministry source said.
“At the beginning of this month, he went on leave again, but didn’t put anyone in charge at AMH. Other senior guys there were also on leave. His plan was to be in and out, from time to time. However, his secret activities and associated dishonesty were exposed, first by Charamba. But several other people, mostly in the media, already knew about it anyway. It seems he was the last to know that his colleagues already knew.”
The sources said in 2019, Mdzungairi also secretly worked at the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission in the communications department.
He had also looked for jobs at different other places, including Harare City Council where he bungled an interview. The job was given to another journalist, Michael Chideme, who has since left.
Before Mdzungairi’s resignation, Local Government sources say the AMH had sent a human resource executive to investigate the issue. They were given information on his employment contract.
In the process, they further learnt Mdzungairi had not told the ministry that he was still employed at the AMH. It was also later discovered he had worked for the National Peace and Reconciliation Commission four years ago while still editor.
The AMH, which ironically struggles to communicate coherently despite being a media and communications company, was forced to write an internal memo after he had resigned.
The internal memo from human resource executive Levy Tswatswa to staff said: “We write to announce the resignation of Mr Wisdom Mdzungairi from the position of editor-in-chief effective 16 January 2023. Mr Mdzungairi has decided to pursue other interests”.
Mdzungairi effectively refused to comment, saying he was not a newsmaker.
Spooks in the newsroom
While journalists and intelligence operatives have different objectives, there is a thin, fine line that separates journalism and intelligence work; both are concerned with collecting information, but for different reasons.
For journalism, information gathered has to be verified, processed and reported objectively for the public interest.
In the security and statecraft establishment, information is also gathered, verified and processed into intelligence so that a state and its leaders make informed, accurate and judicious decisions in the national interest.
Yet one common characteristic is that the two trades intersect and interface where they deal with information gathering.
That is why state intelligence agents could be stationed inside newsrooms.
Due to that conflation of roles, journalists have long been used by governments, wittingly or not, to collect intelligence and even spread disinformation. Intelligence agencies infiltrate and actively work to influence mainstream media.
Sometimes spies masquerade as journalists, spending years undercover.
It has happened in Zimbabwe, including at the AMH, as it has occurred elsewhere in the world.
At the AMH, there have been dramatic incidences of spying at the media house.
On the eve of the March 2008 general elections — on 21 March — the Independent reported that former CIO boss Happyton Bonyongwe had pre-emptively gone to court in an attempt to stop the paper from publishing a story about changes at the state security agency, claiming it was defamatory and false.
In an alarming development, attached to Bonyongwe’s court papers was a print-out of the unedited version of the unpublished story, meaning a CIO agent inside the newsroom had snooped on the computers and got the story for his handlers.
What had happened was that as the Independent news editor at the time Dumisani Muleya left office after finishing his job, he saw a big khaki envelope at reception addressed to him and he opened it as he tried to walk out going home.
To his utter shock, inside were court documents, including an interdict of a story which he had just cleared moments before and was due to lead the paper the following day — 22 March 2008 — a week before the elections.
Investigations were done at the AMH the following day. Annexures to the court papers showed the story was routed from the news editor’s work station through the email address email@example.com — which was for the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (Zuj).
When it got to Zuj is was then sent to a senior CIO director-internal, Andrew Muzonzini, who later became director-external before he was fired by Mnangagwa together with 16 others in 2018.
Investigations revealed Independent senior reporter Augustine Mukaro had covertly sent the story to one of the CIO’s top bosses, Muzonzini, in a brazen act of spying at the heart of the newsroom.
After a disciplinary hearing, Mukaro was fired.
Prior to that, in liaison with Muleya — who was the author of the story — Independent editor Vincent Kahiya had decided not to publish the CIO reshuffle story as the paper could have been in contempt of court.
Bonyongwe had sought the gag order, charging the Independent’s story “involves state security”.
“Publication of a detailed version would cause irreversible harm, loss of cohesion, alarm and despondency, indiscipline and multiplicity of adverse consequences, which have the potential of militating against the operation and effectiveness of the security organisation,” he had argued in his court application.
However, High Court Justice Lavender Makoni afterwards dismissed the urgent chamber application to stop the Independent from publishing the story disclosing details relating to the spy agency’s changes.
At the time, Zuj said it has launched an investigation into allegations that the organisation was used by the state intelligence service as a conduit to send the story to the CIO.
At the time, Zuj president Mathew Takaona said: “I’m shocked by the development. In fact, it is shattering that Zuj can be embroiled in these sort of allegations. We have started our investigations. If it is proved that anyone at Zuj was involved, we will act swiftly and decisively.”
In another example at the Independent, former journalist at the paper Brian Hungwe, now a Johannesburg-based lawyer, was recorded by state security agents while having a conversation with then senior editor Kindness Paradza at the Financial Gazette, making nasty references to former Information minister Jonathan Moyo.
Hungwe was shocked when Charamba — again — referred to what he was saying about Moyo to Paradza in their conversation.
Initially, Paradza thought it was Hungwe who had recorded him and leaked the conversation, leading to a confrontation, but it later became clear it was state agents who had recorded the chat.
In June 2014, the then Sunday Mail editor Edmund Kudzayi was arrested in connection with a high-profile conspiracy allegation linked to the search to unmask the controversial Facebook character Baba Jukwa. He was charged with plotting an insurgency, terrorism and bid to undermine president Robert Mugabe.
Chronicle editor Mduduzi Mathuthu and Muleya were also falsely implicated. Police detectives had been to their workplaces and houses in Bulawayo and Harare respectively.
However, as the Independent case unfolded, what shocked Muleya was that when he was called for a meeting with a team of CIO and police detectives in the office of an influential business executive in Harare to discuss the issue, he found that his email had been hacked and some of his communications with Kudzayi — whom he did not know at the time — were printed for discussion.
Anxious to avoid arrest and to ensure his freedom, Muleya did not even raise the issue during the discussion with the team of three police detectives and three CIO officers, including one from the information technology department.
What had happened was Muleya, who was Independent editor at the time, had been approached via email by Kudzayi to write a column, but had refused as the request had come from an anonymous person who wanted to write an anonymous column without the editor knowing who he was.
So during police investigations, those emails had linked Muleya to Kudzayi, although they had nothing to do with Baba Jukwa. This means Kudzayi’s communication had been compromised, leading to the exposure of his contact with Muleya.
Fortunately, the investigators had not read the whole communication trail, which when availed at the meeting proved that in fact the discussion between Muleya and Kudzayi had ended without a deal.
That laid the matter to rest from Muleya’s side, but it had showed that spooks were snooping on his communication and perhaps hidden in the newsroom as well.
Cases against Kudzayi and Mathuthu also later collapsed, as did the one against Muleya.
In another case, former State Security minister Didymus Mutasa once warned the Independent news editor that he knew what was happening in the newsroom as he had moles inside.
Initially, the temptation was to dismiss him, but when he would repeatedly mention that after journalists’ diary meetings saying he was already aware of what they would have discussed, it became impossible to ignore his claims, particularly because he also had said in public the CIO had agents everywhere. At the time, it also became clear some journalists were snooping on colleagues.
On one occasion, the Independent news editor was shown a report by a CIO contact written by one of his reporters about the newsroom and stories on the diary. The news editor did not ask the reporter until he went abroad.
These are just but some of the examples, among many others, that showed that infiltrators exist in newsrooms.
Sometimes sensitive documents would just disappear in the newsroom. For instance, when reporters brought stories some editors would take documents to hide them or keep them without publishing stories either due to corruption or capture by vested interests with some control over editorial matters. Such documents would sometimes vanish. – News Hawks