When a caravan of armored personnel carriers was spotted traveling on the main roads northwest of Harare on Nov. 14, journalists raced to see if it was the start of a coup against Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s long-serving president.
The view among some reporters by the roadside was that the activity was unusual – but not a sign of a leadership shift.
Reuters Zimbabwe correspondent MacDonald Dzirutwe was not convinced.
Dzirutwe, who has reported from Zimbabwe for more than a decade, phoned Sub-Saharan Africa bureau chief Ed Cropley in Johannesburg to explain what he saw. The military vehicles faced the capital. The soldiers were on edge and aggressive, refusing to answer basic questions or allow photographs. It didn’t feel right.
A day earlier, the head of Zimbabwe’s armed forces had said he would “step in” to end a purge of supporters of Emmerson Mnangagwa, the vice president Mugabe had fired weeks before. Cropley and Dzirutwe believed something was brewing.
They decided to quickly move a two-paragraph story, alongside a picture of the military vehicles, detailing the scene and spelling out the political backdrop. That story did not include any speculation of a coup.
“The language we used was dry and factual, not inflammatory,” said Cropley. “Old-school journalistic ethics – only report what you can see and verify.”
The procession of armored vehicles turned out to be the beginning of the end of -the rule of 93-year-old Mugabe, the self-styled ‘Grand Old Man’ of African politics who had led Zimbabwe for 37 years.
Cropley and Johannesburg-based colleague Joe Brock laid the groundwork for Reuters’ coverage with a Special Report in September detailing how a group of powerful people, backed by the military, had been working with foreign governments on plans for a post-Mugabe era, sourcing politicians and intelligence reports.
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The story caused a stir in Zimbabwean media, political and military circles by shedding light on the fight between Mnangagwa and Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife Grace, the main contender to succeed the president.
While a number of media outlets did not report the movement of military vehicles on Nov. 14, Reuters updated the story throughout the afternoon and evening as Dzirutwe drove around Harare looking for more signs of activity by the armed forces.
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Cropley and the team checked with sources in the government and on the ground in Harare for signs that something unusual was unfolding, even contacting the Zimbabwean ambassador to South Africa at midnight. The ambassador denied that a coup was underway.
A few hours later, soldiers took over the headquarters of Zimbabwe’s state broadcaster before announcing that they had seized power, and Reuters added confirmation to an already detailed report.
All the while, the reporters followed the strict principles of fair, accurate and unbiased reporting that was key to publishing the initial story about the armored vehicles.