Zimbabwe journalists mourn passing of editor Iden Wetherell

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Zimbabwean journalists are praising Iden Wetherell, one of the country’s most principled and exacting editors, who died on Dec. 23 after a battle with Alzheimer’s He was 73.

“He was one of the most tenacious journalists around, never afraid to speak truth to power even in the face of danger,” said Njabulo Ncube, national coordinator of Zimbabwe National Editors Forum, an organization Wetherell helped found in 2002.

Wetherell was “an unrelenting champion of media freedom,” said Dumisani Muleya, executive editor of News Hawks, an investigative journalism website.

“His deep knowledge of history and experience as a former student activist, exiled campaigner, university lecturer and hands-on media practitioner made him a valuable asset to Zimbabwe’s media,” said Muleya.

Muleya was a reporter at the Zimbabwe Independent when Wetherell was the paper’s editor and the two were jailed in 2002, charged with “abuse of journalistic privilege.” They were later acquitted.

This was one of several times when Wetherell faced harassment, threats of physical harm and arrests under Zimbabwe’s harsh media laws such as the Censorship Act.

It was not the first time that Wetherell was in trouble with authorities. In the 1970s Wetherell was a university student leader who campaigned against white minority rule in Rhodesia, as the country was then known. As the country’s war for independence was intensifying, Wetherell became a target of the regime of Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith.

In exile, he was a member of the nationalist movement, the Zimbabwe African Peoples Union. He returned in 1980 at Zimbabwe’s independence to teach history at the University of Zimbabwe and then at a secondary school.

Wetherell went into journalism as an assistant editor on The Financial Gazette, then the country’s leading business weekly. In 1996 he was one of the first journalists to move to the Zimbabwe Independent, edited by Trevor Ncube.

The paper quickly became one of Zimbabwe’s best-selling weeklies, known for its accurate, tight editing of well-reported stories. Wetherell wrote the Muckraker column, a deft, chatty mix of gossip, satire and political analysis that won an ardent readership.

In 2000, Wetherell took over as editor of the Zimbabwe Independent and led it for more than a decade. He was known for his affable yet firm demeanor in the newsroom.

Ncube, now one of Zimbabwe’s most successful publishers, credits Wetherell for making “a huge impact” on him. “I love reading largely because of Iden’s influence. He taught me how to write,” tweeted Ncube following Wetherell’s death.

“He was my tutor and my mentor … I remember him for some of the very powerful editorial comments we did, which shaped the national trajectory. Iden was the engine of the Zimbabwe Independent, an encyclopedia of the Zimbabwe Independent,” Ncube was quoted in the daily newspaper, Newsday, owned by his Alpha Media Holdings.

Wetherell’s work won international recognition in 2002 when he was named Editor of the Year by the World Press Review.

“Your persistence in reporting and decrying the Mugabe regime’s despotism, despite official reprisals, and the leadership role you have taken in the formation of the Zimbabwe National Editors’ Forum have rightly earned you the admiration of your journalistic colleagues in Zimbabwe and beyond,” said the organization.

Accepting the award Wetherell said: “Our duty is to expose and confront the powerful ruling elite that has abused power in order to retain it … We have a particular duty to speak out on issues of governance and economic management.”

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