DATE February 7, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Greg Mortenson talks about the Central Asia Institute,
which he founded, establishing schools for girls in Pakistan and
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
My guest, Greg Mortenson, first went to Pakistan to climb K2, the
second-highest mountain in the world. He didn't make it to the top, but he
fell in love with the region. He returned in 1993 with a different goal: to
start schools in Pakistan, with an emphasis on educating girls. He founded
the Central Asia Institute, which has built 22 schools and created 11 schools
without buildings. Some of his schools are in Afghan refugee camps. The
institute has also created two dozen potable water projects and five women's
vocational training programs. To set up these programs, Mortenson has worked
closely with religious and tribal leaders. He now divides his time between
Pakistan and his home in Montana.
He started building schools for girls one year before the Taliban began its
insurgence. In 1996, the Taliban took over Afghanistan and made it illegal
for girls to go to school. Mortenson says that even before the Taliban,
educational options were shutting down in the region. He blames that largely
on cuts in aid from the US.
Mr. GREG MORTENSON (Central Asia Institute): In 1989, after the Soviets
withdrew from Afghanistan, the aid to Afghanistan dropped from $850 million
down to about $170 million in one year.
There also was the Larry Pressler amendment in '89 which banned the sale of 20
F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan. With that, the US was worried that the F-16s
could carry nuclear bombs that Pakistan had been working on. With that, there
were a lot of tag-alongs, or add-ons, to the sanctions in the amendment that
was tied to debt repayment and loans that Pakistan had defaulted on.
The World Bank funding dropped with more sanctions. Hundreds of schools
closed down in the tribal belts in western Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan.
There were tens of thousands of boys who had aspired to improve their lives
through education, and they ended up joining religious madrassahs or the
Islamic schools, which predominantly are funded by Saudi Arabian Wahhabi.
Wahhabi is the most strict sect of Sunni Muslims. And so just as the
sanctions and schools were getting closed down, there was the opportunity of
more and more madrassahs opening up, and students began to go to school at
madrassahs, which became fertile recruiting grounds for the Taliban.
Over 80,000 boys who have gone through madrassahs joined the Taliban at one
time or another. Ironically, it was the terrorist groups who recognized the
value of, i.e., education, more than the development agencies, and what we
were working--and we started back then is to provide education,
community-based education, which is a deterrent to this stagnant--boys who
have nothing to do, and also a long-term solution as far as giving them hope
GROSS: Do you see it as paradoxical that American sanctions that withheld
certain aid money helped close down the schools, which helped build the power
of the madrassahs, the religious schools?
Mr. MORTENSON: Right. If you draw that out on a chart, it's very
interesting. It almost happened at the same time, and one thing evolved into
another. And even today--I met some Taliban when I was in Pakistan in October
last year, and without exception--this is about 10 different Taliban--they
said they would never join the Taliban if they had a job. When somebody signs
up for the Taliban, they got a $300 bonus. They went to three weeks of
training, then they got an assignment for six months. When they got done,
they would get a $200 bonus.
If they had had education or if they had had economic--some type of incentive
or a job, all the ones I talked to, at least, said they would never join the
GROSS: What made you think of starting schools for girls, as opposed to
schools for boys?
Mr. MORTENSON: I met a very old professor in New Delhi. His name is Pritpal
Singh. He was one of the senior statisticians with the United Nations, and he
basically drew out a chart to show me that fifth-grade level girls' education
is the single most important thing you can do to literally improve the quality
of a society in that part of the world. And the chart really got me motivated
to work on girls' education.
GROSS: What's the theory behind that? Why does girls' education improve the
Mr. MORTENSON: Well, basically, by having literacy and educating girls to
that level, they have a greater awareness about hygiene and sanitation, and
they can read different charts and diagrams, and they also have a better
understanding about family planning and hygiene that seems to be more
instilled. And also, there's the old saying as these societies are changing,
most of the boys and men leave the villages, especially the educated ones, but
the women stay behind, and they're the essence of the community, so when you
educate a girl in the village, that will remain in the village and that value
of education will go to the next generation.
GROSS: The Taliban banned education for girls. So I imagine that over the
years that you've been building schools in Pakistan, that you've had Islamic
leaders tell you that girls really shouldn't receive an education. Has that
happened much where you were told that?
Mr. MORTENSON: Initially my third year there I'd completed the first school,
and I was looking at other options in some remote areas. But I met resistance
from the village mullahs or the sharifs or the religious head leaders in each
village. And most of all it was about that they were the only literate person
in the village and they could issue edicts or it gave them a lot of power. So
I contacted Said Abas Resvi(ph), who's the head Islamic leader in northern
Pakistan. He's a Shiite Muslim under the auspices of the Iranian ayatollahs.
We wrote a letter to Kholm, Iran, to the council of ayatollahs. And about
nine months later, we got a letter back.
I was called into the middle of a mosque in a kind of inner sanctum. Eight
mullahs were there, very imposing. And they brought me this red, velvet box.
I thought this was it. I'm going to get kicked out of the country. Instead,
Said Abas opened the box and inside was a letter in the ornate Persian Farsi
script which basically said that they have reviewed my request. In the holy
Koran, there's nothing that prohibits education. In fact, it encourages
education for both our, quote, "brothers and sisters," and, furthermore, that
me as an infidel had not only their approval but their blessings; the work
that I was doing was in the highest principles of Islam.
And after we got that letter, basically within a few weeks, we've got dozens
of proposals and now we can't keep up with the demand. We have requests for
over a hundred girl schools in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
GROSS: Where were you on September 11th?
Mr. MORTENSON: I was in Zutcon Village(ph) in Charposen Valley(ph). It's on
the Afghan-Pakistan border in the extreme north of Pakistan. It took about
eight hours for the word of the incident to get to me via jeep, porter,
donkey, mule. These are illiterate people. They told me that a village had
been bombed in New York and 50,000 people had been killed. These are people
who hadn't seen a skyscraper or an airplane. And immediately I noticed there
was an outpouring of sympathy. I met with Islamic leaders in prayer sessions
and they, without exception, told me that this was not in accordance with
Islam and that these were terrorists. Village army commanders, village
chiefs, children, women--they embraced me. Little old ladies brought me eggs
in sympathy to bring back to New York to give to the widows who had died in
the World Trade Center. And what I saw and felt over the next two months
certainly didn't reflect what I saw in the press when I came back here to the
GROSS: Well, when you were told that a village in New York was bombed and
50,000 people died, what did you think and how did you find out what had
Mr. MORTENSON: At first it was hard to believe, and there was also a
great--they told me that the US would begin a massive retaliation and also the
Taliban would begin attacking villagers. So there was some panic and fear. I
wasn't able to talk to--this was a place without electricity, telephone, fax
or radio, TV. So I sent a message to go get my satellite telephone. It took
a couple days to reach me, and there I got to talk to my wife and get more
kind of accurate information. But what I immediately saw was just a really
outpouring of sympathy.
GROSS: My guest is Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute
which builds schools for girls in Pakistan and in Afghan refugee camps. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is Greg Mortenson, founder of the Central Asia Institute,
which builds schools for girls in Pakistan, including in Afghan refugee camps.
What you've described on a whole is a very positive reaction to your work, but
I know in 1996, you were kidnapped while you were working in Pakistan. What
Mr. MORTENSON: I was visiting a water project in the tribal areas which is
near Khowst in Afghanistan where the US bombed in 1998 in August. And I got
actually involved in a tribal dispute. And 2 AM eight men armed came into my
room. They blindfolded me, took me out. They were all armed. And they
brought me--and walked down a hill in a pickup. We went to another place two
hours away, and I was held in confinement for eight days. They treated me
well. However, I didn't know if I was going to get killed. I didn't know
what had happened, if I was being held for ransom. And I noticed on the third
day I got really depressed. So I thought I have to survive this. I had just
gotten married and my wife was six months pregnant. The first thing I did is
ask them for a Koran. And they brought me a Koran. And then, of course, I
asked for somebody to translate or read it for me. And the second thing I did
on the fifth day was to tell them that I had a firstborn son coming very soon,
although I knew I had a daughter coming. And in that society, the birth of a
firstborn is a very important event.
On the eighth day, they again wrapped up my head with a turban, took me down
the path. We went in a pickup and down to a clearing about 5 AM. And just as
the sun's coming up, I was in this place with about 200 armed warriors. And
they had been fighting for over eight days. And they had used me kind of as a
bargaining chip and their dispute was over and they released me to a barrage of
gunfire in the air and they were all hugging each other. It was a very
strange event, but I learned from that time on to really acknowledge the
traditions, their ancient tribal codes.
The Pashto, who dominate that area, have three things in their code of
conduct. One is nanawati, which is the rite of refuge or hospitality. If you
ask them for permission to come in their society, they will give you their
hospitality, refuge. The second is kerat, is that all the community will be
involved in decisions, and the third, puksto(ph), which means hospitality, and
they'll give you incredible hospitality. I had gone there without being
invited, and had I perhaps first sought the permission of the tribal chief, I
doubt the kidnapping would have happened.
GROSS: How did you feel about lying and and saying that you were expecting a
son when you knew you were having a daughter?
Mr. MORTENSON: Well, I knew the difference, and at that point, all I wanted
to do was survive and get home, so I felt it was OK to lie a little bit, but
in the end, I've gone back and talked to the people there, and they somewhat
knew that I might not be telling the truth, but that I was trying to kind of
understand their code and what's important to them, to see across the
GROSS: So you went back to say, among other things, it wasn't really a son,
it was a daughter?
Mr. MORTENSON: Yeah, and I brought pictures, and they invited me back,
ironically, and now they're asking for help in the area since the Taliban have
left the area.
GROSS: Why did you go back?
Mr. MORTENSON: I wanted some closure and also, I think they taught me a very
important lesson. Most of the foreigners who get into trouble, it's not
seeing across the culture barrier, and I wanted to show them that I had
learned and accepted their way, and also I basically--they invited me back, so
I wanted to go there and get some closure on it.
GROSS: I imagine there's things that you didn't necessarily want to accept.
I mean, I can see there must be a lot of dilemmas, working in Pakistan and
working with Afghan refugees, because on the one hand, you want to respect and
understand and often accept the culture. On the other hand, there are aspects
of the culture that you don't accept. For instance, you don't accept those
within the culture who think that girls shouldn't be educated.
Mr. MORTENSON: Right. And it's taken me several years. There's a saying
that you can rent an Afghan, but you can't buy one, and basically, you need to
win their hearts. Recently, with the military and a lot of the bigger news
agencies, they've been handing out dollar bills like candy, and they've been
able to glean support for our activities over there. But to win the hearts of
the people, it really takes three cups of tea. The first cup of tea, in the
first sitting, you're a stranger. The second cup, you become a guest and the
third cup, you become a family. The process takes several years. It's kind
of like the two-minute football drill or the 30-minute power lunch, American
power lunch, really doesn't work over there.
And so I'm here in DC. I was talking to some congressional committees about
working over there. It's an entirely different mind-set, and what they do is
very significant to how long-term solutions will be. Another thing that I
talked about was about the Afghan civilian deaths and casualties in the
bombing campaign. Rumsfeld talked about that the American people wanted to
know what had happened and the truth, and there have been probably around 4 to
5,000 Afghan civilian casualties.
If we could, as a country, acknowledge the casualties rather than discreetly
disavow them or sweep them under the carpet, go to those people, maybe perhaps
apologize, give them some compensation, maybe $100 or $200 per casualty. That
would elevate the people who died in the campaign to a high status, to
shahid(ph), where they would basically go straight to heaven, and if by doing
that we would not only win their support but win their approval that they've
been part of a campaign for the freedom of Afghanistan.
But by disavowing or denying the casualties, what's happened has caused a
schism and put up a wall instead of a bridge between us and the people there.
GROSS: I'm sure a lot of people have wondered, well, what are this guy's
motives? Is he really a spy, and the stuff about setting up schools is just a
cover so he can infiltrate us? Why are you doing this?
Mr. MORTENSON: Well, one thing is, my sister, Krista(ph), she had severe
epilepsy and she passed away in '92. Originally I went to Pakistan to climb
K2, the world's second-highest mountain, a year later to honor my sister's
memory. And I didn't quite get to the top. I felt very disappointed and
incomplete that I hadn't summited. And when I went back into the villages and
saw the children, I first realized that this was really a way that I could
acknowledge Krista's memory. And this sounds almost--How do I say this? And
what about Krista that was really special was that she had a lot of
determination and resilience, and despite her handicaps she inspired at least
me, and many people she met. And I see that in the children that I work with.
Krista had always wanted to go to see the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.
On July 30th my mother was going to take her there. And she had packed her
bags the previous night. My mother went down to get her at 6 in the morning,
and she found Krista dead in her bed. So in many ways, I see the Field of
Dreams that Krista was wanting to go to in the schools that I built. So I
guess that's what really motivates me.
GROSS: What's the connection between your sister and schools?
Mr. MORTENSON: She had difficulty learning how to read and write, and
everything was a challenge for her. And I see that over there with many
children, just the obstacles that they overcome to get to education. The
kids, some of them, walk five or 10 miles, 15 miles, to get to school. Many
of them are hungry, but some of them have lost their parents, but they still
really are dedicated to try and get their education, and they'll do anything.
And they're very similar to what I knew in Krista.
GROSS: How well did you get to know people in that region when you were
Mr. MORTENSON: I first went in and I was very focused on the mountain, but
coming out, there were some people that nursed me back to health, and I spent
three weeks in the village. And I've gotten to know them very well. I know
the names of probably at least half the students. I speak the languages,
different ethnic languages there. And more than that, I've gotten to know
different women in the villages over the years. I've found out that they're
up against great adversity.
GROSS: You said that after you'd climbed K2 that the villagers in that region
of Pakistan nursed you back to health. Why did you need the nursing? What
Mr. MORTENSON: Well, when you climb a high mountain--K2 is over 28,000 feet
high--your body starts to deteriorate. I lost about 30 pounds. I was
emotionally exhausted. It took a supreme effort to try and get to the top of
the mountain, and I could barely make it back down the mountain, let alone
carry my load of about 80 pounds, seven days back to the road where the jeep
was and the nearest village. So the villagers, they carried my loads, they
fed me their local payucha(ph), which is salt tea, and korba, their unleavened
bread. And when I got--I could barely make it back to the village, and in
that village was where they put blankets around me and gave me their local
food, and just kind of incredible hospitality and I think, more than that,
just cheered me up, because I was a little bit despondent at the time, mainly
because I hadn't made it to the top of the mountain.
GROSS: Greg Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asia Institute, which
builds schools for girls in Pakistan, including in Afghan refugee camps.
He'll be back in the second half of the show.
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, we call Zimbabwe and talk with journalist Andrew Meldrum.
A new law makes it illegal to criticize the president, Robert Mugabe, and the
government is cracking down on the press. The minister of information
recently accused Meldrum of being a liar and traitor. Also, we continue our
conversation with Greg Mortenson.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Greg Mortenson. In
1993, he founded the Central Asia Institute, which has created schools in
Pakistan with an emphasis on educating girls. He works closely with tribal
and religious leaders in the region. He divides his time between Pakistan and
his home in Montana.
Now you grew up in Tanzania, near Mt. Kilimanjaro, which is the highest
mountain in Africa. Your father founded the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical
Center. Was your father a missionary?
Mr. MORTENSON: They went over as teachers for four years. After that, my
father decided to build a hospital there in northern Tanzania. He set up the
Good Samaritan Foundation. I would say they were perhaps missionaries, but
more than that, they were involved in just helping with education and health
care in East Africa.
GROSS: What was it like for you to be the white kid of American descent
growing up in Africa?
Mr. MORTENSON: It was actually a marvelous time we had. I learned the local
language, Swahili. We could run around in the coffee plantations. It was
when the game parks were just getting set up. So it was just post-colonial
and new democracies. People were excited. It was a wonderful time. And
perhaps my main challenge was coming back here and trying to fit into this
culture. And I've always felt, kind of, going back between different cultures
and not knowing really where is home, but I feel it's been a very unique
Ironically, after September 11th, not once in Afghanistan or Pakistan was I
either harmed or threatened or even really pushed in any rhetoric.
Ironically, when I came back to the States in early November, I received a
pile of hate mail and some threats. And that was--really threw me for a loop,
because I wasn't expecting that when I came back here to the States.
GROSS: Who was threatening you?
Mr. MORTENSON: They were Americans, and they called me a traitor. Other
people were saying that I was worse than the enemy because I was an American,
quote, "helping the enemy." And I'm gone several months a year, so with my
family here in the States it caused me some concern. I think most of it's
based out of ignorance and the hatred. People don't really know who the enemy
is, so they want to lash out with somebody that's physically viable. However,
I think in many ways, the enemy is our own ignorance and also that we need to
accept we're part of a global society. Some solutions I feel would also be
important are bilingual education and being able to have cross-cultural
exchanges between business groups or educators so that we can see ourselves in
those other countries.
GROSS: You first went to Pakistan to climb K2. When you were growing up near
Mt. Kilimanjaro, did you climb that mountain?
Mr. MORTENSON: Yeah, I climbed it when I was age 11. I barely made it up to
the top. I was gagging and puking all the way to the top. And I went back
there last year in January 2000, 28 years later, and again I climbed up to the
top. I wanted to get up to the true summit. And it was about the same thing,
I was--barely made it up to the top. But it was a good--it felt--it was a
closure for me. Also, my father, when he came back to the States--this was in
'73--he passed away just a couple years later. And we often wonder if he
wasn't very happy here. And so I feel I'm much--my reward also is being able
to live in different countries and work with different groups of people.
GROSS: Just curious. When you were a kid, if you gagged and puked your way
up the mountain, why would you want to do it again?
Mr. MORTENSON: Well, I thought--it was something--I hadn't quite reached the
summit the first time around, and I really thought I wanted to get up to the
summit. And it's rather strange because I haven't climbed very much recently,
and my work and my family is what I spend my time with. But I wanted to go
back. I noticed things hadn't changed much. I got to see my father's
hospital. I got to the top of the mountain. And it was just--I guess to
climb a mountain is something--it's hard to explain, but getting up to the top
is not the main thing but it's the experience, the people and just the joy of
being up there and the high slopes and looking over and seeing the land below
it. It's a very rewarding experience.
GROSS: When are you going back?
Mr. MORTENSON: March the 8th, I'll be going...
GROSS: Are you looking forward to it, or are you a little worried about it?
Mr. MORTENSON: Actually, I'm very excited. This is a very dynamic time.
This is a beginning. There's new hope. People are very determined. The
refugees will be coming back from the camps to their homes. Some of them have
been gone for 10 or 20 years. There's excitement in the air. There's also
restlessness and there's some uncertainty about the future. But for me, it's
a very exciting time.
GROSS: Well, I wish you good luck. And I want to thank you very much for
talking with us.
Mr. MORTENSON: Thanks, Terry. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: Greg Mortenson is the founder of the Central Asia Institute.
Coming up, we call Zimbabwe and talk with journalist Andrew Meldrum. The
government is cracking down on the press, and he has been accused of being a
liar and traitor. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Andrew Meldrum discusses a new law in Zimbabwe that
makes it illegal to criticize the president
TERRY GROSS, host:
It's becoming more difficult to report the truth in Zimbabwe, where journalist
Andrew Meldrum is based. The government has been cracking down on the press.
In fact, the minister of information recently singled out Meldrum for
criticism. Meldrum has lived in Zimbabwe for the past 20 years, and writes
for the British publications The Guardian, The Observer and The Economist. He
also serves on the executive committee of the Foreign Correspondents
Association of Zimbabwe.
It's not just the press facing new restrictions. A new law makes it illegal
to criticize the president, Robert Mugabe, who is facing stiff competition
from the opposition party in the March election. Police have been given new
sweeping powers, including the right to ban any gathering of more than two
people. Meldrum says this essentially replaces a law from the days of the
white-ruled Rhodesian government of Ian Smith that was used to suppress
African nationalists. Some lawyers in Zimbabwe view the new laws as more
repressive than the old one.
A bill restricting journalists was passed by Parliament last week and is
expected to soon by signed into law. I asked Andrew Meldrum what he and
fellow journalists will be up against if it is signed.
Mr. ANDREW MELDRUM (Journalist): Earlier, when the bill first came out, it
said that no foreign journalist could be accredited or licensed. You need to
have this license in order to work in the country, and they said that no
foreign journalist could have that license. But then they changed it to say
any Zimbabwean citizens would be eligible, and also permanent residents. And
I have lived here in this country long enough so that I actually have a
permanent resident status. It's a specific immigration status. It's kind of
like having a green card, I would say. And people have joked that it's the
Meldrum amendment to the bill because I'm the only foreign journalist who
applied for that situation. And so now legally I am able to apply for the
accreditation, but the government still has the power to take it away at a
And the government has in the past five or six weeks named me by name in the
state paper as a--well, in one case they called me a terrorist. In another
they called me a saboteur, a threat to national security, an intelligence
agent for different spy groups. And they also called me a liar. So I know
that they don't like me very much, and so--and also that the minister in
Parliament last week when he was debating the bill, again, mentioned me by
name, and many other journalists, I might add. And so I have an idea that
the--I'm eligible to apply for the accreditation, but the government can
either refuse to issue it to me or they can take it away from me.
GROSS: I believe it was the minister of information, Jonathan Moyo, who
singled you out and said those nasty things about you. What do you think
prompted him to say that? What was it that he took issue with that you've
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, first of all, may I say that those things are all not
GROSS: Yes, right.
Mr. MELDRUM: ...and they're defamatory. And not only I, but a group of
journalists, because he said similar things about several other journalists,
both foreign and Zimbabwean. And we are suing for defamation. It is our
right, and those things are actually dangerous to say about anybody in the
climate that is in Zimbabwe today, where there are at least two extralegal
groups, the War Veterans and the Zawna PF Militia(ph), who go around beating
people up for such kind of accusations. So, you know, it puts us in a bit of
physical danger as well.
GROSS: Why do you think...
Mr. MELDRUM: Why would he say that?
GROSS: ...he singled you out? Yeah.
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, you know, that I'm afraid--I can't read his mind. But he
doesn't like the stories that I've been writing, which point out corruption,
which point out that the human rights of thousands of Zimbabweans have been
abridged, abused; that there have been beatings, torture, killings of people
who are supporting the legal opposition party. And so those type of things, I
think, he doesn't like to see them. And beyond that, it's caused him a bit of
problems because the European Union and the United States have both take steps
to impose targeted sanctions against Mr. Mugabe, and Jonathan Moyo, the
information minister, is one of Mr. Mugabe's favorites. So this is his way of
saying, `Well, look at what we're doing to these thorns in your side.'
GROSS: It's now against the law to criticize the president. How broadly is
that being defined, and what are some of the things that might be interpreted
as criticizing the president when you're just reporting the news?
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, journalists--yes, as you point out, it affects
journalists. It affects anybody who's at a public demonstration or a public
meeting. It also affects--and this is, I think, one of the key things--it
affects politicians. And Morgan Changurai, the opposition leader, the leader
of the Movement for Democratic Change, is giving Robert Mugabe the strongest
challenge in the presidential elections that are coming up on March 9th and
10th in the 22 years that Mugabe has been in power. And Morgan Changurai--and
he's ahead, Morgan Changurai, in the opinion polls. And he, while
campaigning, is not allowed by this law to criticize the president.
Meanwhile, the president calls him a saboteur, a traitor, a threat to national
security, the same kind of things that he has said--or that Jonathan Moyo said
about me. Robert Mugabe can vilify Morgan Changurai, and Changurai, according
to the law, cannot criticize the president.
GROSS: Oh, it's some election, huh?
Mr. MELDRUM: Some election. And let me explain that the new press bill was
presented to Parliament with this Public Order and Security Act, and also with
an amendment to the Electoral Act, and also an amendment to the Labor
Relations Act. And the amendment to the Electoral Act was also passed, and
that gives the government complete control over the electoral process, over
voting and who will be the officials around voting booths and things like
that, and also over the counting of votes and who will be in the counting
stations, who will be with the ballot boxes as they're transported to the
counting stations. And it gives the government complete control. There will
be no neutral monitors, and the international observers, who only have the
power to watch but not to stop any fraud if they see it happening, those will
be limited as well.
GROSS: Well, here's one of the things I'm wondering. If you report in one of
your articles that there is widespread criticism of these new laws, can that
interpreted as a criticism of the president, and therefore could you be
subjected to punishment for having reported that?
Mr. MELDRUM: So far, it hasn't come to that, you know, and I'm not clear is
if you criticize the president's government if you're actually criticizing him
personally. Also, aside from the fact that you're not supposed to criticize
the president, you're not supposed to criticize either the police or the army.
So those are the other things that are somehow protected by this law. But on
the other hand, lawyers here say that it's clearly unconstitutional and it
should hold up--you know, should be thrown out if you're charged against it,
against the courts. And that's another area where Mugabe is fighting battles.
He has tried to get the courts to be thoroughly in his sway, and he seems to
have--he's just made several appointments to the Supreme Court, so it seems
like he has a fairly strong Supreme--well, a Supreme Court that is fairly much
in his favor.
GROSS: There was a journalist in Zimbabwe who was arrested and then later
released this week. What was that about?
Mr. MELDRUM: That was Basil Zenpeta(ph). He writes for the British
Independent Newspaper, and he also writes for the local Financial Gazette
newspaper, and he is also the secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of
Journalists. And he's an outspoken critic of the government in all of those
roles. And he was arrested for allegedly organizing a demonstration against
the press bill that was held before--the demonstration was held in front of
the Parliament building, where 60 foreign and local journalists wore gags
across their face and they held up placards criticizing the law. And they
were there for about a half an hour, 45 minutes. It was broken up by the
police. Three journalists in the demonstration were arrested but released
shortly after that because it was proved that under the Public Order and
Security Act, there was a clause that allows professional bodies--in other
words, groups of lawyers, groups of accountants or groups of journalists--to
have a public gathering without giving police four days' notice. And they
were released on those grounds.
But then this week, Basil Zenpeta, the head of the Zimbabwe Union of
Journalists, was arrested. He was held overnight for organizing this
demonstration. But on the same clause, he was released. And it was clear
that the police were really trying to harass him. They knew that they would
have to release him. But they did pick up him and then they let him go. So
GROSS: OK. So the government in Zimbabwe is cracking down on journalists.
You've been mentioned by name as being a real problem to them. What kind of
chilling effect, if any, is this having on what you write? Are there certain
things you would ordinarily say in a piece that you're afraid to say now?
Mr. MELDRUM: No. If I did that, why, then I would be, you know, helping them
accomplish their aims. And that is not the case. But what I am doing is I
think I have to be just a little bit more careful, and I want to be careful in
the words that I say and make sure that I'm absolutely right. I mean, I had
always done that before, but I think it makes--you know, on uncertain
sentences you think, `Oh, well, let's make sure that that's airtight.' And so
GROSS: And what's keeping you in Zimbabwe? It's certainly a difficult
climate to work in.
Mr. MELDRUM: Well, it's very exciting as well. You know, we see the forces
of democracy at work here and struggling to survive. And what probably hasn't
come across in what I've told you is that there is an opposition party that is
very impressive and full of very interesting and lively people who are
committed and are risking their lives to do what they are doing. There are
also a wide array of civic groups that are also standing up and challenging
the government individually. And so there are very many interesting people to
speak to. And also in my role I feel that I am helping to give them a voice.
And that's a role that's very exciting to do as well.
And I guess another positive thing to tell you about is the fact that, you
know, I and other journalists, we have all stuck together and we have worked
together. And that is very gratifying to find that we have so much in common
professionally that we're not allowing ourselves to be divided or to point
fingers at each other. We're all standing together. And, again, it feels
like a very important stand for, you know, press freedom in this country, and
it's an important kind of demonstration for Africa in general. And so these
issues and these principles, it's not often that one can be involved in them,
and so that to me is really very, very challenging.
GROSS: My guest is journalist Andrew Meldrum. He's joining us from Zimbabwe.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest, Andrew Meldrum, is joining us by phone from Zimbabwe, where
a new law makes it illegal to criticize the president, Robert Mugabe, who is
facing stiff competition from the opposition party in the March election.
With the kind of control that President Mugabe is exerting and with the
restrictions on speech, do you think it's possible for the opposition party to
win? And even if the party did win, do you think that Mugabe would actually
accept that, or would there be civil war?
Mr. MELDRUM: Let me say that the elections cannot be free and fair. From the
laws that have been passed and the conditions that exist here, particularly
the breakdown of rule of law, it cannot be free and fair. But I believe that
there is so much support for the opposition party, the Movement for Democratic
Change, that it is still possible that Morgan Changurai could win. Even with
everything that's going on, I think it's still possible. And there is a
feeling that I can catch, and many other people have felt it recently, a kind
of groundswell feeling of people who are really grimly determined to vote and
to vote for Mr. Changurai. And so it is possible that he could win.
Whether or not Robert Mugabe will accept it is another question, and that's up
to a lot of debate. And, in fact, the army recently made a statement
that--the commander of the army said that he would not accept a president who
did not come from the liberation struggle. And, of course, Robert Mugabe was
a guerrilla leader in the struggle against Rhodesia, and Morgan Changurai was
not. He's much younger, and he was not. He was here working on the mines,
and he rose through the trade union movement. And so--in any case, the
generals said that they would not respect somebody who didn't come from the
liberation struggle. So that was the warning that maybe the army would stage
a coup. And, in fact, many lawyers and other people said, `Well, this is a
pre-emptive coup. They've already announced that they're going to have a coup
if Morgan Changurai becomes president.'
I still think that the army may respect the people's will, the democratic
choice. And it may be just that a few generals said this. But I don't think
the--many people tell me, and I think certainly, and other people that I've
spoken to, that the army would not have a military coup against a
democratically elected president.
GROSS: It's certainly a paradox that Robert Mugabe, who emerged as a leader
of the African liberation struggle, is now one of the great dictators of
Mr. MELDRUM: It is, but, you know, then with the hindsight, you know, the
wisdom of hindsight you can look and see. Really, ultimately I still blame
Ian Smith. He and Rhodesia created a situation where people could only get
their basic human and civil rights and to be treated as full human
beings--they could only get those rights through using violence. And as the
war became more and more bitter, it became--Ian Smith created a situation
where only Robert Mugabe could come to power. And violence--you know, Robert
Mugabe and his party and his guerrilla army used violence. And I think
violence corrupts, and violence begets more violence.
And it's very interesting now as Robert Mugabe and his party are fighting the
most difficult democratic challenge in their career they resort to violence.
They're not trying to change their policies. They're not trying to think,
`Gosh, now what can we do differently? Can we work on the economy?' They're
not thinking anything differently. They're just resorting to violence. And I
think that it was always there, but now it's in full view for all to see.
GROSS: You're working in a country where many journalists are considered the
enemy of the government. What's it been like for you to read from afar the
story of Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped in Pakistan?
Mr. MELDRUM: Gosh, you know, I think it sounds just terrible. And it's
funny, you know, it sounds a bit like it must sound to you. It sounds far
away and it sounds like--I think, `Ooh, I wouldn't want to work there, you
know, it sounds so dangerous and crazy.' And then I think, `Well, God, you
know, where we are is just as dangerous and crazy.' And I know some
journalists who have gone from Zimbabwe and they've gone to Pakistan. So, you
know, yeah, that's what I think.
GROSS: Are you concerned about what you say in this phone interview? Are you
concerned that somebody might be tapping your line or that what you say might
get back to the government?
Mr. MELDRUM: You know, in going through all of this, my attitude has been the
best thing to do is to just be open and straightforward about everything. And
I have been told that my, you know, phone is tapped. But I just think, `Well,
really my best defense is just to say the same things that I'd say anywhere.'
And so I do, and same with my e-mail. And so, no, I'm not worried. And,
again, it's the kind of thing, if you start to get worried about something
like this, that allows them to achieve, you know, their goal. And so it's
better just to keep on, you know, talking straightforwardly.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Mr. MELDRUM: Oh, thank you very much. I'm really hoping, as I think you
could tell, that maybe in March you're going to call me and I'll say, `Well,
you know, Zimbabwe really looked bad about a month ago, but right now there's
a new president and, you know, he's saying all the right things about
democracy and the country's full of a new optimism that's just almost as good
or maybe as good as it was in 1980 when majority rule first took hold.'
GROSS: Well, I hope that's exactly what happens.
Mr. MELDRUM: Great.
GROSS: And I look forward to having that conversation.
Mr. MELDRUM: Great. ...(Unintelligible).
GROSS: Thank you very much.
Mr. MELDRUM: Thank you.
GROSS: Andrew Meldrum spoke to us from Harare, Zimbabwe, where he reports for
the British publications The Guardian, The Observer and The Economist.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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