Reporters and editors plan the daily coverage of the Zimbabwe Herald. The state-owned newspaper was forced this month to cover the downfall of Robert Mugabe, whose rule it had long applauded. (Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)

For 37 years, it was the official newspaper of Robert Mugabe. Then, this month, the staff of the Zimbabwe Herald got an impossible assignment: They would have to cover the downfall of their benefactor.

In the days after Mugabe was detained by the military, editors and reporters gathered in a wood-paneled newsroom in an old office building downtown, trying to figure out what to do.

Should they back Mugabe or the military takeover? Did they still have to echo the party line? What was the party line, anyway?

Suddenly, a newsroom that had been the mouthpiece of the regime was without a censor.

“In the past we could never criticize the president,” said Felex Share, a political reporter, in the hours before Mugabe’s resignation. “Right now, we can touch anything.”

Phyllis Kochere holds the newspaper announcing the resignation of Robert Mugabe in the newsroom of the Zimbabwe Herald. (Kevin Sieff/The Washington Post)

The rapid descent of the world’s oldest head of state came as a shock to many Zimbabweans who assumed Mugabe would rule the country until his death.

The Herald, which is owned by the government, had advanced the idea that his rule was untouchable. Until two weeks ago, the paper was printing laudatory stories and editorials about the country’s despotic leader.

"President Mugabe deserves Nobel Peace Prize," said one headline last month.

"He is undisputedly the most exceptional figure in the history of our country," another article said in September.

The paper’s editors and reporters didn’t usually agree with those messages, but working for the Herald meant shelving your own politics. It was the best-paying newspaper in Zimbabwe, and in a country with a soaring unemployment rate, that meant something.

“It makes you feel stupid writing this stuff,” said Joram Nyathi, the paper’s deputy editor. “But you’re working for government media. You know what to expect.”

Even after Mugabe’s house arrest, the paper decided to play it safe. “Business as usual across the country,” its front-page headline said, ignoring the shock wave rippling across Zimbabwe.

Inside the newsroom, a frenzied revolution was taking place. Reporters who had for years bit their tongues while writing flattering stories saw an opening.

“It was a seismic shift for us,” Share said.

Days later, when thousands poured onto the streets of Harare to demand Mugabe's resignation, the tenor of the paper's coverage began to change. It started publishing straightforward news reports about the country's swelling opposition. It sent reporters and photographers into crowds carrying anti-Mugabe signs. For the first time in decades, it gave Mugabe's rivals a voice.

It wasn’t just the Herald that seemed to be liberalizing. Arbitrary police checkpoints vanished overnight. Foreign journalists, once heavily obstructed, could move freely (including into the Herald’s newsroom). The demonstrations themselves were unimaginable only weeks ago.

In the following days, the paper wrote front-page stories about Mugabe’s dismissal as head of the ruling party, ZANU-PF.

It covered plans by the parliament to impeach the president. It ran op-eds in support of efforts to bring Mugabe down.

"We have no doubt that the biggest winner in this fiasco are the people of Zimbabwe," said one.

Zimbabweans started posting pictures of the Herald on Twitter and Facebook, in disbelief that the newspaper of Mugabe had suddenly abandoned him. The paper had to increase its print run to keep up with demand.

"This in the Herald. Pinch yourself — it is not April Fools Day," tweeted David Coltart, a former senator and member of the opposition, after the paper covered Mugabe's dismissal from the party.

It wasn’t just that the Herald was eager to seize a rare moment of press freedom. Its senior editors were also trying to sort out who was likely to emerge from the country’s political chaos — so they knew which horse to back.

“You don’t want to step on the wrong toes,” said Phyllis Kochere, the deputy news editor.

On Tuesday, the paper sent its parliamentary reporter, Farirai Machivenyika, to cover a session in which lawmakers were expected to begin protracted impeachment proceedings. About an hour into the session, Machivenyika watched as the speaker of the house stood up with a piece of paper in his hand, a smile spreading across his face.

The speaker began to read a resignation letter written by Mugabe. Machivenyika took frantic notes. Like many of the Herald’s reporters, he was born after Mugabe assumed power in 1980. He could hardly believe he was about to file a story about the president’s resignation.

He thought to himself: “This is what relief feels like.”

The next day, the Herald ran the words "Ta Ta, Cde President" on the front page, with the full text of Mugabe's resignation letter. In an editorial, the paper wrote: "Last night was a new beginning for Zimbabwe."

In the morning, the newspaper’s staff gathered for the news meeting, its first of the post-Mugabe era.

Nyathi looked around at the other editors and reporters and muttered under his breath, “Well, what do I do now?”

For about an hour the staff debated what had just happened to their country and what was going to come next.

“There’s a need for a coalition government,” said Ruth Butaumocho, the gender editor.

“If ZANU-PF thinks it will lead the country alone, they will continue just like Mugabe,” said one editor.

“We need to come up with an objective analysis of the trajectory the country’s politics is going to take,” another said.

“Things are changing every hour,” Kochere said.

“We need more stories!” yelled Nyathi.

That day, the major story line was the return of the soon-to-be president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who had been in exile for several weeks since being fired as vice president. No one — not even the paper’s reporters — was sure how the Herald would cover it.

Would Mnangagwa get the same kind of flattering coverage Mugabe had received for so many years? Would the Herald continue its streak of more objective reporting?

That night, Mnangagwa's speech veered into the anti-opposition rhetoric Mugabe had often used. "Those who oppose us will bark and bark," he said. "They will continue to bark, but the ZANU-PF train will roll on, ruling and ruling while they bark."

It was exactly the kind of language many of the Herald’s top reporters and editors had expressed concern about, a sign Mnangagwa had no interest in forming a broad coalition.

The paper didn't cover that angle. Instead, it published positive news stories and editorials, including one on the front page under the headline "President needs our maximum support."

Had the paper’s brief window of freedom closed? Back in the newsroom, opinions were divided.

“Like any other media business, we are expected to toe the owner’s line,” Kochere said.

Share was more optimistic.

“There are no sacred cows now,” he said.

In the front entrance of the Herald, the portrait of Mugabe had already been taken down, leaving a slightly discolored rectangle on the wall where it once hung. The newsroom looked like any other — with piles of yellowing paper atop desks, clusters of reporters discussing their stories, editors trying to plan the day’s coverage.

Kochere looked through a list of story pitches in the center of the room. Outside, a crowd was waiting for Mnangagwa to arrive at the president’s office, waiting to hear what he would say on the eve of his inauguration.

Kochere sighed. She had been at the paper for 17 years. She knew the Herald as well as she knew Zimbabwean politics.

“I think a lot of people are going to be disappointed,” she said. “It’s a divided nation.”

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