HARARE, ZIMBABWE — A PIONEERING tabloid and its maverick former editor have sparked a raucous debate in Zimbabwe over the press's right to publish reports critical of the government. Editor Geoff Nyarota, who led The Chronicle's meteoric rise from a troubled regional daily to a widely read newspaper, was told to vacate his office in the southern city of Bulawayo earlier this month. The Chronicle's recent detailed reports on alleged government corruption had caught national attention, and Mr. Nyarota and his editors faced threats of arrest and legal suits by offended officials.
Although there has been no official announcement, Nyarota was reportedly removed as editor and promoted to a public relations position at the Harare headquarters of Zimbabwe Newspapers, which owns most of the country's dailies and weeklies.
The Minister of Information, Witness Mangwende, denied involvement in the Nyarota affair but argued that Zimbabwe cannot afford investigative journalism. ``We do not believe in it because it encroaches on the privacy of the people,'' he said. ``We cannot afford the wholesale publication of inaccurate news items of those that will tear up the fragile social and political fabric of our new society.''
The trouble began last October when The Chronicle rocked the government with reports on officials using their power to obtain scarce new cars for themselves and friends from one of the country's three vehicle assembly plants, Willowvale Motor Industries.
The Willowvale disclosures followed student protests against corruption last fall and the deportation of a left-wing Kenyan law professor. Later in October, a popular politician, Edgar Tekere, was expelled from the ruling party's central committee, for likening Zimbabwe's leadership to a ``jungle of sharks'' leading the young democracy ``down the precipice.''
Prime Minister Robert Mugabe established a three-person commission to investigate what has become known here as ``Willowgate.'' Whatever the investigation's outcome, the affair has already damaged the government's reputation among the southern African nation's 8 million people at a time of new food price hikes and up to 30 percent of unemployment.
Editor Nyarota's ouster prompted nearly a week of debate in parliament. Byron Hove, an outspoken member of the ruling ZANU-PF party, urged President Mugabe to reinstate Nyarota and expressed alarm at ``the progressive curtailment of freedom of the press.''
Opposition official Sydney Malunga accused the government of using a ``sledgehammer policy, where they will pounce on anyone they think is vocal, where anybody who, despite being constructive in his criticism, will have to be silent.''
Nyarota, once Mr. Mugabe's press aide, appeared to follow in the foot-steps of two other major newspaper editors who lost their jobs after angering the government. Willy Musarurwa, the first black editor of The Sunday Mail after independence from Britain in 1980, was sacked in 1985 for giving too much space to the opposition. His successor, Henry Muradzikwa, was transferred after publishing reports on Zimbabwean students deported from Cuba for health reasons.