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Zimbabwe's media battles

Analysis: A free press is a key test of the new power-sharing government.


Meanwhile, the government-owned papers have been denouncing U.S. President Barack Obama for renewing U.S. sanctions. Calls from MDC ministers to lift the sanctions, which mostly cover loans and balance of payments support, have complicated the picture.

The MDC knows it will fail if it can’t get Zimbabwe's economy working again. That will require reengagement with major lenders such as the United States, European Union and International Monetary Fund. They have all made it clear there has to be more evidence of reform before they can release their purse strings.

But Tsvangirai is becoming impatient.

“Zimbabweans should not have to pay a further price for their determination to stand by their democratic ideals because the new government does not meet or match the ‘clean slate’ or ‘total victory’ standards expected by the West,” he wrote this week in a newspaper article. “This new government is not perfect, but it does represent all Zimbabweans — it is positive, it is peaceful, it is committed to a new constitution and free and fair elections and, with international support, it will succeed.”

The problem here is that Mugabe's old-guard elements are doing their best to make sure the new government doesn’t succeed. Political prisoners are still being held in appalling conditions, farms invaded by Mugabe supporters and their owners threatened while the police stand by and watch. Meanwhile the government media continues to denounce the West in vitriolic terms. The country’s one TV station acts as a cheerleader for Mugabe while permitting the new ministers an occasional mention.

Mugabe is refusing to swear-in one of them, Roy Bennett, because, the president says, he is facing “serious charges.” In fact, they have been concocted by the state.

Mugabe agreed with the MDC to promote “fair and balanced” media coverage when he signed the unity agreement in September last year. There has been little evidence of that in recent weeks. And without media reform the public will continue to receive one version of events that suits Mugabe’s regime. That in turn means that when a new constitution is submitted for approval in a referendum next year the public will be unable to make an informed choice.
That will suit Mugabe as well.

The lack of real media reform as well as the lack of the rule of law remain major obstacles to the success of the power-sharing government. The Zimbabwean public is eager for a free press. The U.S. and other Western powers also regard an unfettered media as a key test for whether or not Zimbabwe should get new aid. Morgan Tsvangirai and his partners in the new government have many battles to fight against Mugabe and his cronies, but the struggle for a free press is one of the most crucial.

More GlobalPost dispatches on Zimbabwe:

At last, some good news from Zimbabwe

Tsvangirai sworn in as Zimbabwe's new prime minister

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Editor's Note: This story was updated to correct a typographical error.