HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s fractured press is unlikely to see a recovery despite the intervention of Unesco — the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization — which has been hosting a major conference of media players this week, the first such gathering since President Robert Mugabe and Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai agreed to form a government of national unity last year.
Mugabe and Tsvangirai have been at daggers drawn since the formation of the unity government in 2009 and Zimbabwe's media reflects the deep divisions in the two camps.
Mugabe and his inner circle see the news media as an agency of political control. Their Zanu-PF party presides over a stable of state-owned newspapers which act as the president’s apologists and cheerleaders. In addition all broadcasting is state-owned and therefore all television and radio remains in the hands of Mugabe’s cronies who daily excoriate Tsvangirai as a tool of British and American imperialism.
Mugabe’s aim is to use the media to reverse the gains made by Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change in the 2008 election. He is backed by a cabal in the police and armed forces which holds the prime minister in open contempt.
Despite an agreement to work together for reform — the so-called Global Political Agreement of 2008 — there has been very little harmony between Mugabe and Tsvangirai. Mugabe’s loyalists occupy key ministries including those of agriculture, security and the media, and they exclude Tsvangirai and the MDC from key national decisions such as who should be buried at Heroes Acre, the national shrine.
Zanu-PF recently refused to recognize veteran trade unionist Gibson Sibanda as deserving of hero’s status because he had not fought in the bush war that brought Mugabe to power.
Commenting on this issue, one of Mugabe’s chief spokesmen remarked that “the role the MDC played from its formation in 1999 was and remains ignoble and treacherous. It is a role that saw the MDC, led by Sibanda and Tsvangirai, fighting the return of the land, taking money from sponsors of Rhodesia which resisted and killed those lying at Heroes Acre. Above all, it is a role that brought us sanctions responsible for the gnawing misery we face to this day.”
Confronting this hate speech in the official media are a handful of independent newspapers and externally-based radio stations. Mugabe’s party has made the closure of these stations, which include the Voice of America’s Studio 7 and British-based SW Radio Africa, as a condition for further concessions to the MDC.
But the so-called “pirate” stations are not controlled by the MDC and those stations argue that so long as the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation churns out partisan calumnies against the MDC and all other government critics, there will be a need for professional and independent stations. The external stations function abroad, it is pointed out, because the government refused to uphold a 2000 Supreme Court order striking down the ZBC broadcasting monopoly. The only voice heard across the land remains Mugabe’s.
Some of Zimbabwe’s most prominent journalists currently work abroad because they cannot be guaranteed safe passage to return to Zimbabwe. Unesco has refused to seek state guarantees for their attendance at its conference because, it says, they could face a number of charges which it is not Unesco’s business to challenge.
The editor of The Zimbabwean, Wilf Mbanga, has been subject to threats by Zanu-PF politicians.
Following a story the paper published earlier this year on jockeying in the Mugabe succession stakes, former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo lashed out at Mbanga. “Maybe they don’t know this,” he reportedly said, “but the MDC-T idiots and the British counter-intelligence agents behind Wilf Mbanga’s desperately false story are playing a dangerous disinformation game which can be played in far better ways by revolutionary comrades to the devastation of corrupt and incompetent MDC-T ministers, councilors and politicians including Wilf Mbanga and some Zimbabwean website operators whose cupboards are full of shocking skeletons.”
The Zimbabwean company’s distribution truck was hijacked and set on fire in May 2008 ahead of elections. There has been no attempt to arrest those responsible. Nor have the perpetrators of the 2001 bombing of the Daily News’ printing press been brought to justice.
It is in this context that the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum has sought assurances for its currently exiled members. But the government has found it expedient to allow a cloud of uncertainty to hover over the media.
Zimbabweans need a free and diverse media in order to make informed choices at the polls which have been mooted for next year. But given Mugabe’s determination to manipulate the press as an agency of his grip on power, that prospect remains remote.