Zimbabwe: nun recalls Rhodesia's clampdown on media

 As all free media has been silenced by the government of Zimbabwe, a missionary nun remembers the colonial era of Rhodesia when she suffered for her work as Catholic journalist. Maryknoll missionary,

Sr Janice McLaughlin writes: When my mother took me as a child to the library each week to borrow books, little did she know she was paving my way to a prison cell in Africa. Books were my constant companions in grade and high school, but when I joined the Maryknoll Sisters in 1961, I feared my reading days were over. I was overjoyed, therefore, when my first assignment was to our communications office. I learned the basics of journalism from Sister Maria del Rey Danforth, an old pro who had worked for the Pittsburgh Post Gazette before joining Maryknoll. "Be yourself," she taught me. "Know what you want to say and say it."

I marvelled as I watched her at her old typewriter composing book after book, including the Maryknoll classic, Bernie Becomes a Nun. She not only taught me how to write obituaries, news releases and feature articles but also introduced me to the world of mass media. We produced weekly shows for NBC TV and wrote articles for Reader's Digest and Catholic Digest as well as magazines such as Look and Life. Seasoned reporters and broadcasters, eager to assist us, became our friends. After four exciting years with Sister Maria del Rey, I attended Marquette University, where I studied mass communications.

After graduation in 1969, my dream of going to Africa came true. I had three job offers, thanks to Maryknoll Father Joseph Healey, who was already working in media for the Church in East Africa. I accepted the invitation from the Kenya Bishops Conference, to head their newly established communications office. "Help us tell our story," Cardinal Otunga, Chairman of the Conference, told me. My first task was to train local laity in the mass media so we could work as a team. John Irungu, just out of high school, became my local counterpart. He spearheaded the broadcasting while I focused on the print and audiovisual media. We built our own radio studio and set up a scholarship fund to train local people in media communications.

Seven years later, I accepted an invitation to be press secretary for the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace in what was then Rhodesia. Bishop Lamont, Chairman of the Commission, interviewed me for the post shortly before he was deported for his outspoken criticism of the minority government of Ian Smith. "Never be afraid to speak the truth, no matter the consequences," he advised me. Bishop Lamont was one of the leading figures opposing the Rhodesian oppression of the black population. He was a man who helped pave the way to an independent Zimbabwe.

My first assignment was to help investigate the murder of seven Catholic missionaries a few months earlier. All signs pointed to a group of Rhodesian soldiers, impersonating guerrillas to turn public opinion against them. The soldiers, guilty verdict did not please the Rhodesian government. As the war intensified, I was asked to prepare a series of fact papers on war crimes to present to a team of British and American diplomats attempting to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the armed struggle. The day before two senior diplomats arrived from London and Washington, the Rhodesian secret service arrested me. They were determined to prevent the publication of information I had compiled.

I learned firsthand the truth of the saying: "The pen is mightier than the sword." After three weeks in detention, I was deported to the United States, but by trying to suppress the truth, the Rhodesian authorities helped to spread it. I couldn't keep up with all the invitations I received to share my story. I was even given a human rights award from the Black Catholic Association in my native Pittsburgh. My parents were proud I had taken a stand for equality, although my mother lost 20 pounds while I was in prison. I told her it was all her fault for introducing me to the world of words.

Sr Janice McLaughlin is Research and Publications Officer at Silveira House, a leadership and development education centre run by the Jesuits in Harare, Zimbabwe. Source: People for Peace in Africa

ICN / Published Thursday, May 22, 2003 6:00 am

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