Mugabe maintains media grip

HARARE, Zimbabwe — It is an extraordinary situation: President Robert Mugabe’s
Zanu-PF party lost its parliamentary majority in elections last year. Mugabe himself lost in the first round of voting in the presidential poll but he managed to hang on to power by a campaign of violence and manipulation.

But despite this tide of public opinion against Mugabe, his Zanu-PF party continues to maintain its iron grip on the country’s sole broadcaster. As a result the only voice heard across the land — on radio and television — is Mugabe’s.

Not only is Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) leader Morgan Tsvangirai shut out of news reports, he is also excoriated for allegedly undermining the Government of National Unity (GNU) in which he is prime minister.

Tsvangirai recently withdrew from active participation in the GNU because of what he called “unfulfilled promises by an unreliable partner.” He took his ministers with him.

“We have a crisis on our hands,” Tsvangirai said last month. “We are no longer talking about a theoretical case but a practical experience.” After three weeks of boycotting, Tsvangirai and other MDC ministers returned to cabinet meetings on Nov. 11, but the situation remains tense. The MDC is clearly unhappy with the power-sharing government which they complain is all about Mugabe keeping power and sharing very little.

Tsvangirai's most immediate frustration is the prosecution of MDC official Roy Bennett, facing what the MDC calls trumped-up terrorism charges. But another major sore point for Tsvangirai is Mugabe’s refusal to open up the media despite the fact that was specifically required in the agreement that formed the basis for the power-sharing government.

Mugabe's Zanu-PF, the losing party in last year’s poll, uses the broadcast media — and the vast swaths of the print media that the state owns — to “explain” to the public how they were duped by British and American propaganda into voting for a pro-Western party that did not have the interests of the people at heart.

Tsvangirai has taken his case to the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional grouping that is tasked with mediating between the warring parties in Zimbabwe. A SADC delegation was in Zimbabwe this month to investigate MDC complaints about the broadcast media and other issues, although the official press described the visit as routine.

At the same time, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak was bundled out of the country before he could even begin his mission. Zanu-PF ministers said they were too busy with the SADC visit to see him but the fact that Tsvangirai offered to host the U.N. official probably sealed his fate.

“I think it sheds light on the present power structure of the unity government if the prime minister invites me for a personal meeting and his office is not in a position to clear my entrance to the country,” Novak told reporters on his arrival back in Johannesburg. “That is a very alarming signal about the power structure of the present government.”

Among Tsvangirai’s other complaints are selective application of the law, politicization of the armed forces, and ongoing land seizures.

Mugabe blames the West for Zimbabwe’s economic decline.

“People voted with their stomachs,” his apologists insist, as if voters were expected to ignore dire social conditions.

The conditions of the power-sharing government call for “fair and balanced” coverage of events and the unimpeded return of Zimbabwean journalists in the diaspora. Mugabe has complained bitterly that externally-based radio stations, which he calls “pirate” stations, are transmitting hate-speech into Zimbabwe.

In fact, what they are doing is setting the record straight and contradicting the pernicious propaganda of the official broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, which is as partisan as it is unprofessional.

Ten years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the ZBC’s transmissions monopoly. Independent broadcasters subsequently set up a private station. Following a police raid most fled abroad.

Minister of Information Webster Shamu, a former broadcaster himself, has studiously avoided guaranteeing the safety of returning journalists who were threatened with arrest by his predecessor if they returned to Zimbabwe. Nor has he felt inclined to issue licenses for new publications.

It is clear Zanu-PF is clinging on to its broadcasting domain because it sees control of the airwaves as an essential weapon in any forthcoming election — despite its facile mantras on independence and sovereignty finding no purchase on the public mind in last year’s poll. People can see the words “USAID” clearly branded on the maize bags Mugabe claims are his gift to the nation. That is a reality that needs no explanation.

Meanwhile, Mugabe’s propaganda machine is ratcheting up the pressure on the MDC.

“Let the law take its course,” an editorialist in the state-run Herald newspaper wrote this month.

“We cannot allow situations where total disregard for cases takes precedence so that we gratify a small constituency of Westerners who we all know are only making a noise because their kith and kin (Bennett) has to undergo trial.”

“They are lying,” township resident Shadreck Munyoro declared. “They only mention the rule of law when it suits them.”

Whatever the case, with each passing day, bringing its now familiar diet of abductions and assaults, Tsvangirai’s position out of power becomes more precarious than ever.