The journalists at the Zimbabwe Independent gather each Monday morning to discuss the stories they are planning for the coming week and attempt to ignore, as best they can, the unsettling fact that any one of their articles could be their last.
Their dilemma: To write skeptically about President Robert Mugabe or his ruling party is to court the wrath of a government that has shut down two other newspapers in the past year, they say. But failing to write skeptically would be to betray the paper's mission and drive away readers who have rewarded it with a growing circulation as competitors have been closed.
Members of the Independent's staff have learned, they said, that in a country where the government uses the courts to punish its enemies, the only thing more dangerous than a story critical of the government is a story critical of the government that contains errors or other flaws.
"The state is like a fox watching," said Iden Wetherell, who recently moved from being editor of the Independent to a new position overseeing projects there and at its sister paper, the Standard. "We know they're out to get us."
The Independent, a weekly with a circulation of 25,000, operates out of a dingy, one-floor newsroom about the size of a fast-food restaurant. Across the street, gleaming in modern splendor, is the skyscraper housing the headquarters of Mugabe's party, the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front. From the windows of the newsroom, Mugabe and other senior party leaders, who have run the country with nearly absolute power for the past 24 years, can be seen coming and going, past increasingly squalid streets, in motorcades of black Mercedes-Benzes.
Party officials control the information that Zimbabweans receive on the radio, television and in most newspapers. The ruling party exerts outright control over all broadcasting and runs daily newspapers in the capital, Harare, and in Bulawayo and Mutare.
The government media tell Zimbabweans that Mugabe and his government are unfailingly benevolent and wise and that their main opponent, the Movement for Democratic Change, is a dangerous terrorist group that operates as a front for British efforts to reestablish Zimbabwe as a colony.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in London that he was working with opposition leaders in Zimbabwe in hopes of ending Mugabe's rule, government newspapers and television stations repeated the comment for weeks. The editorial page of the Herald, the government-run daily in Harare, ran a column and a picture of Blair with the headline: "World now knows the truth about Zimbabwe. Speculation as to who is at center of 'problems' is closed."
"This kind of constant messaging is what Zimbabweans have to endure," said Brian Raftopoulos, a political commentator who contributes opinion pieces to the Independent. "The public debate is severely curtailed."
Zimbabweans once had more options. The only independent daily newspaper in Zimbabwe, the Daily News, was firebombed, then raided and looted by police before finally being closed by court order in February. At its peak, it sold 100,000 copies.
The Tribune, a weekly owned by Kindness Paradza, a member of parliament from the ruling party, was closed by the state media commission in June after several months of increasingly skeptical coverage of the government. Paradza was expelled from the party for criticizing the media law that led to his paper's demise.
The editors at the Independent say the closures have made them more careful to avoid the type of actions the government used as pretenses against the other papers. Owners of the Daily News, for example, had refused to register the newspaper under a new media law it was challenging in court. The Tribune changed the name of its corporate parent but failed, according to the media commission, to notify it of the change in a timely manner.
The owner of the Independent, Trevor Ncube, has instructed his editors and business managers to rigorously comply with any law that does not violate journalistic ethics.
"I've insisted to my management, let's play by the rules," Ncube said. "Let's not create any excuse for them to come for us."
He added that his caution did not affect news judgment. "I'd sleep very, very soundly if we get banned because we published an article the government doesn't like," he said.
Three newspapers remain that are not controlled by officials of the ruling party. Two of them are owned by Ncube.
The Independent has experienced several close calls, Ncube said. The newspaper has published six stories that have prompted attempts by the government to prosecute it under a two-year-old media law that criminalized the reporting of inaccurate information.
Police detained Wetherell, a second editor and a reporter for 48 hours after one of the stories -- about Mugabe's use of an Air Zimbabwe jet for a vacation to Indonesia with his wife -- was published in January. On a recent Monday, the top editors were called to appear in court over the story.
The government has not disputed the central facts in the story but has said that Mugabe did not personally call for the airplane and that to use the word "commandeered" in the article amounted to a criminal defamation of the president.
The government dailies often ridicule the Independent and its editors in articles and columns. Wetherell, who is white, has drawn particularly vicious attacks.
A Herald columnist last month called Wetherell a "bitter colonial relic." In January, the Herald called Wetherell "our willy-nilly neighbour, a fellow Zimbabwean by statute" who "we the sons of this black African soil have to suffer until the scythe of time makes its remedial harvest."
The government's willingness to allow the Independent to publish is a source of anxious conversation among journalists in Zimbabwe. Many former reporters and editors of other newspapers lost not only their freedom to publish but also their jobs, in a country where unemployment is estimated to be as high as 70 percent.
Efforts to start online newspapers have begun, but Internet access remains slow and limited and is heavily regulated by the government.
"The freedom of expression is dead," said Sam Nkomo, publisher of the Daily News, who is battling criminal prosecution but trying to get the courts to allow the newspaper to resume publishing.
Nkomo said one of the few things he could imagine worse than losing his fight to reopen the Daily News would be the closure of the Independent.
"Then," Nkomo said, "the country would have gone to the dogs."