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In Zimbabwe, diplomats tread lightly

Zimbabwe's dictator and his propaganda press make it hard for ambassadors to be diplomatic.

Zimbabwe News, Robert Mugabe
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe speaks during a press conference on Dec. 23, 2009. (Desmond Kwande/AFP/Getty Images)

HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe’s state-owned media have a trick up their sleeve when new ambassadors present their credentials to President Robert Mugabe.

Let loose after the ceremony, they pounce on the rookie envoys to ask something bound to compromise them such as, "Should sanctions against Zimbabwe be lifted?" The newcomers then make a diplomatically optimistic statement which is then spun by the state media into a ringing endorsement of the Mugabe regime.

The diplomats then spend a good deal of time and energy in their first weeks in office seeking to “clarify” what they actually said.

No, they didn’t say "sanctions should be lifted." They said that once the terms agreed by all three parties in government had been fulfilled, "sanctions would naturally go." Not quite the same thing.

The Swedish ambassador to Harare spent the entire duration of his assignment in Harare wishing he hadn’t pledged himself to “build bridges” between Zimbabwe and the West. When he departed last month after a four-year stay, he was excoriated by the state media for having plotted behind the scenes to pile pressure on Mugabe to deliver meaningful change. Meanwhile, his colleagues derided his naivety in thinking he could build bridges, a galling predicament for an old Africa hand who had served elsewhere in the region in the 1980s.

A previous U.S. ambassador explained the diplomats' dilemma: “Most new arrivals think Zimbabwe is a wonderful country with wonderful people. Its problems cannot possibly be intractable, they conclude. So the first six months are spent in a round of futile negotiations until the new boy realizes he is banging his head against a brick wall marked Mugabe.”

U.S. ambassadors have taken to saying and doing what they like in preference to diplomatically dancing around the issues. The previous American ambassador, James McGee, a large man, led a motorcade of vehicles containing diplomats and journalists into the country’s interior inspecting hospitals to collect evidence of state-sponsored political violence. Where security officers attempted to block access by closing gates, the ambassador simply forced them open.

Last month, the new European Union ambassador, Aldo dell’Arricia, presented his credentials to Mugabe. "What do you think of the current reforms such as the new Media Commission?" a reporter for the official media asked.

“I have been in this country for the past eight days,” dell'Arricia replied, “and what I can tell you is that there is a press that is free. You can read newspapers in this country and have a feeling of independent information.”

Having just “got off the boat,” he didn’t notice that there were no private media present to cover the presentation. They hadn’t been admitted. Nor were there any independent radio or TV stations present. There aren’t any. The only voice heard across the land is Mugabe’s.

Now dell’Arricia has some catching up to do. His claim that Zimbabwe had a free media was immediately picked up by the state media and reported as “Zim’s press free.”

The last thing Zimbabwean journalists, especially those facing charges for criticizing Mugabe, want to hear is how free they are from new arrivals.

There is indeed a Media Commission in place which has issued several newspaper licenses, but it is staffed by an official of the old regime who uses his column in the state-run press to denounce the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) in excoriating terms. And no new radio or TV stations have been licensed. The media minister has still not found it within himself to give assurances of safe passage to Zimbabwean journalists wishing to return from the diaspora.