Ed Cropley on coverage of the end of the Mugabe regime, Reuters Journalists of the Year winner of Story of the Year
Last week, Reuters celebrated its annual Journalists of the Year Awards, honoring excellence in Reuters journalism in 2017. This year’s Story of the Year winner was a team of reporters covering the end of the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe. Their coverage included an agenda-setting Special Report that foreshadowed events, as well as reporting during the coup and later analysis and reconstruction of pivotal moments. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Sub-Saharan Africa Bureau Chief Ed Cropley offers a behind-the-scenes look at their reporting.
Q. What were some of the standout moments in our Zimbabwe coverage?
A. Two months before the coup, we published a Special Report based on intelligence files from inside Zimbabwe’s Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and political sources in Harare and Johannesburg, outlining how the army and deputy president Emmerson Mnangagwa, backed by British diplomats, were plotting for a post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. The story was derided by many in Zimbabwe at the time, saying we didn’t know what we were talking about and were being spun. To be proved right just two months later was very satisfying. The sources we built up in reporting the report also gave us an unmatched advantage when the tanks did start to roll.
Another highlight is putting in a call, two days after the coup and with Mugabe hanging on, to the spokesman of Botswana President Ian Khama, a prominent Mugabe critic. Khama was in a meeting but three hours later I got a call on my mobile from a Botswana number: “Hello. Is that Ed? It’s President Khama here. I understand you wanted to talk about Mugabe…” He then proceeded to unload, saying Mugabe was diplomatically isolated, had no support in southern Africa and needed to stand down.
Q. What got you and the team started on the story?
A. A statement from the head of the army threatening to intervene in politics in support of purged deputy president Mnangagwa put us on high alert in Harare and Johannesburg. The next morning, I started receiving WhatsApp videos from Zimbabwean contacts of armoured vehicles driving along roads. There were also pictures of troops stationed in a truck outside the Defence Ministry in downtown Harare. Obviously it was impossible to verify the locations or date (WhatsApp strips off geolocation and timing meta-data) but the volume of clips suggested something was definitely up. In one clip, shot from a car, the audio gave the road and the day. The road was on the way to large military base. We immediately scrambled Harare correspondent MacDonald Dzirutwe to the spot. He found one armoured vehicle beside the road, its tracks broken, and eyewitnesses spoke of several other armoured vehicles going down the same road. The soldiers were aggressive and on edge – suggesting these were not normal manoeuvers. We decided to take the plunge and run with it.
Q. What types of reporting was involved?
A. Reviewing thousands of intelligence cables stretching back to 2009. Interviews with political and intelligence sources in Harare and Johannesburg. On the ground gum-shoe reporting, monitoring of social media.
Q. What was the hardest part of the reporting?
A. Trying to work out what on earth was going on in the talks between Mugabe and the generals. Clearly there had been a non-constitutional intervention by the military – but Mugabe was still there, and was even pictured in state media smiling and shaking hands with the generals. Many Zimbabweans feared he might manage to delay his departure and stage a fight-back, based on possible lingering support in the police and intelligence services. Had this happened, hundreds, possibly thousands, of people would have been killed.
Q. Why was this an important story to tell our customers?
A. Zimbabweans – and much of the world – had been waiting for decades for the end of Mugabe, Africa’s last anti-colonial big-hitter whose bitter and adversarial relationship with London had tainted relations between the continent and West. Aged 93, most people assumed he would be departing in a box, not a coup that sought to patch up relations and bring the resource-rich country that sits at the heart of southern Africa back into the international fold.
Q. What makes you passionate about journalism?
A. There’s nothing like the adrenaline of being in the middle of a big breaking story, especially when you’re in control, driving the news and forcing others to follow.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I’m sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief, responsible for more than 45 countries, so don’t have a specific beat. In far-flung locations, we rely heavily on stringers who often don’t have a lot of media training but who are invariably brave, dedicated and well-sourced. The real buzz is when these men and women get working with international staffers – who have the experience and perspective – to produce great stories.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. The end of Mugabe was definitely one highlight. Others are a coup in Thailand in 2006 and an uprising a year later, led by Buddhist monks, against the military junta in neighbouring Myanmar.
I was also involved with covering the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Speaking to person after person after person whose lives had been destroyed was very distressing, and still makes me emotional to this day.
Q, Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I actually joined Reuters as a marketing/business management graduate trainee (in 1997), but quickly realized I wanted to be a reporter, and got a couple of lucky breaks that allowed me to make the switch. It’s hard to think about doing anything else.