The challenge for Zimbabwean media writers in 2007: conclusion
Posted by CM on September 13, 2007
In a previous article published elsewhere, I tried to lay out why I believe the way Zimbabwe’s travails are covered by much of the international media puts special responsibilities on the shoulders of Zimbabweans writing in 2007.
Zimbabwe’s sad descent and the inflamed passions it has aroused across the world have increasingly led to a much distorted picture of Zimbabweans. Groups that find that what Zimbabwe stands, for according to them, can be used to support their positions selectively choose what they feature about the country, and how, in a way that I think harms us collectively. It is therefore the responsibility of Zimbabwean writers, who are hopefully motivated by artistic professionalism as well as the well being of their country, to provide the better context and more complete picture of the Zimbabwean reality.
This has for too long been the predominant preserve of non-Zimbabwean opinion shapers. Their interest is sometimes not merely relating the facts and explaining the situation, but sometimes to project particular agendas. This is obviously their right, except in the instances where advocacy and opinion masquerade as straight journalism. But distortion, unwitting as well as deliberate, has increasingly crept in because of how the issue of Zimbabwe gets so many groups of people of various ideological positions so worked up.
It is often said Mugabe enjoys much support in Africa (outside his own country) and in much of the developing world. But there are not many of such supporters who would put their money where their mouths are, and actually choose to live under a dispensation where so many things are so obviously going wrong. What such supporters may like are what Mugabe and/or Zimbabwe represent for them about the colonial past, the present and the future, not the actual reality of what is! We, the Zimbabweans, have our own lives tied up in that sad reality, and so cannot afford to be swayed by the mere appeal of the symbolic. Like Ghana’s Nkrumah in an earlier era, in Mugabe we see a despot inspiring lofty sentiment in those afar, but being reviled by most of those who actually have to bear the consequences of his autocracy and economic failures.
In giving a fuller picture of the Zimbabwean story than many partisan or foreign correspondents are interested in doing, non-aligned Zimbabwean writers are uniquely positioned to provide the sober perspective that seems so often lacking. My clarion call to my fellow Zimbabwean writers is that it is further our responsibility to play this role.
On the one hand you have the likes of the government-owned The Herald, which no longer makes any pretence of being a newspaper in any respectable sense of the word. In reading it, I often think that if my brief were to churn out propaganda for the Mugabe government, I would consider The Herald a particularly embarrassing and ineffectual representation of the craft. Its praise-singing of the government is so poorly, childishly over-done that it is sometimes hilariously entertaining. But it is almost never credible, even from a propaganda viewpoint, let alone a professional, journalistic one.
In The Herald’s version of Zimbabwe, anyone who disagrees with how the country is being ruled must be “slammed” and tarred as an enemy. Just on the basis of “all those who disagree with us are necessarily unpatriotic,” you throw out your seriousness as a paper, because everyone intuitively understands that life is not that simple. Yet the whiff (at least) of credibility is the essence of believable, effective propaganda, a basic principle mysteriously lost on The Herald and other branches of the state propaganda services. Then you have the expensively hired rear-guard of the side, such as Baffour Ankomah of New African magazine.
But on the other side, and of equal harm to the cause of explaining the complexity of “the Zimbabwe crisis,” you have the sections of the UK and other foreign media who are so rabid in their hatred of Mugabe that they lose all semblance of calm when they hear his name! It has gotten to the point where I am as suspicious of the “journalism” of the UK Daily Telegraph as I am of the Zimbabwe Herald, though for diametrically opposed reasons. While The Herald is now widely understood to be a propaganda sheet, and a rather miserable one at that, a paper like the Telegraph largely enjoys the reputation of being a serious, even if obviously ideologically slanted, newspaper. That, and the greater global reach it and others of similarly apoplectically anti-Mugabe ilk enjoy, makes their type of propaganda even more harmful than the amateur efforts of The Herald.
The historical and political reasons for the emotionalism of the coverage of the two sides may be obvious, but they both do tremendous harm in distorting the issues and events in Zimbabwe. We, the Zimbabweans, are the greatest losers, but the many across the world who may not get particularly emotional about it, but who, nevertheless, follow the Zimbabwe saga and just want to be well informed and understand it better are also poorly served.
One could argue that The Herald and New African are being honest in a way; in not pretending to be anything other than “hear no evil, see no evil” advocates of Mugabe. Much of the rabidly anti-Mugabe sections of the UK and international media, on the other hand, still try to hide their advocacy behind the façade of serious journalism, making their distortions even more effective and damaging. Perhaps The Herald could borrow a leaf from them in the art of subtlety, although that is increasingly being supplanted by the shrillness of their anti-Mugabe coverage.
Those of us Zimbabweans who also oppose Mugabe may tend to let distortions about the country that paint our political nemesis in bad light slide. But this is short-sighted, and collectively harms us more than it helps our ccause. It is time for us to make a distinction between our dissatisfaction with how our country is being mis-ruled, and how the country and its people overall are portrayed.
I regularly see many examples of the sloppy reporting and the distortions I refer to virtually everyday, but one particularly infamous one stands out. It was the report several months ago by since disgraced former CNN star Jeff Koinange, about how “the Zimbabwe crisis” had made citizens resort to eating rats as a beef or chicken substitute. This aroused howls of outrage amongst Zimbabweans, who took it as a low blow against them in the propaganda war between the Mugabe regime and a sore, score-settling CNN that had been barred from operating in the country.
I have no reason to believe mouse-flesh protein is nutritionally inferior to cow or chicken-flesh protein. And there are people in Zimbabwe and all over the world who consider rat or mouse meat a delicacy, as the embattled Zimbabwean ambassador to the US wasted his time trying to say in response to CNN queries. Likewise, there are any number of other kinds of “exotic” meat that are regionally considered delicacies, but that many of us would shiver with disgust at the thought of eating. A few examples are dogs and snakes in parts of Asia, and snails in France. It has nothing to do with the intrinsic quality of the meat, but the cultural conditioning of a given setting.
Having said that, rats in the modern Zimbabwean setting are not widely considered a socially desirable kind of meat. Such is the level of revulsion at the idea that even in hard times, there are not a significant number who would knowingly eat rat flesh, let alone seek it out. And that there are some who do cannot necessarily be extrapolated into “this is what Zimbabwe has been reduced to.” Hence the widespread Zimbabwean reaction to Koinange’s suggestion, that an example he found (or deliberately sought out) of a Zimbabwean who does happen to enjoy rat meat was an indication of the people’s level of desperation, was understandably one of outrage.
Early this year, while in Nairobi, I was fascinated by a picture in a Ugandan paper I bought, of a Karamajong man dangling a mouse he had caught, ready for cooking. There was no big story accompanying it, it was just a human interest picture of what is generally an unusual, though far from unheard of, predilection.
Even if this had come to the attention of Koinange and CNN, I very much doubt they would have found it a juicy (pun intended) story important enough to play up for the world as an example of the economic situation in Uganda. For whatever reason he caught the mouse (possibly indeed including economic hardship for him) this was treated as an interesting example of one person about to enjoy his mouse meat, the way a Frenchman would look forward to tucking into his escargot.
Ditto points for a recent, graphic picture close-up on the BBC’s website, of a man in India roasting a rat over an open fire. It was not part of a crisis story, but an actually rather interesting photo feature titled “Gastronomic adventure,” in which food writer Stefan Gates featured “unusual” culinary practices from across the world. The caption does mention that it is not a meat of choice, but one forced on a particular group of people by circumstance, as might indeed have been the case with the Zimbabwean mouse eater Koinange discovered. There was no suggestion of a larger “India in crisis” angle to the roasted rat picture.
My point? For some globally influential media, anything that can be spun in an anti-Mugabe way is fair game. But that is no longer journalism, and in many ways we the “innocent” Zimbabweans, as well as just plain truth, are the real “victims” in this war of attrition. In the somewhat light-hearted case of Koinange’s story, it was so poorly Herald-style that despite the embarrassment that image-conscious Zimbabweans may have felt, there was arguably as much harm done to him and CNN by their over-stretching an isolated example to take a pot shot against the much reviled Mugabe.
We have a pretty good idea that much of what we read in The Herald and the rest of the State media is fiction and propaganda in defence of Mugabe. But on the opposite side, if the Koinange story was an example of what is considered fair game in more serious stories about Zimbabwe by heavyweights of the likes of the Daily Telegraph, CNN and many others, what proportion of what we read and see about Zimbabwe is journalism, and what proportion is out and out propaganda? Even if you think they are fair game against Mugabe, what about the way the distortions impact on us who are caught in the middle; whether emotionally, in terms of image, collective nationhood or otherwise?
In reporting about Zimbabwe, there are many basic factual questions that should be asked about many of the stories we read that are no longer being asked, leading to an increasing acceptance of the sloppiness I alluded to earlier. If you report that eating mice has become a widespread trend because of Mugabe-caused economic hardship, that is a fascinating phenomenon. It deserves to be backed up by more serious investigation than citing the example of what could have been a person who happens to enjoy mouse meat. Show us the evidence of the links of your interesting,claim!
So, Zimbabwean writers, we really have our work cut out for us: to navigate this vicious propaganda minefield and present the sad tale of our country, but with a detail, context and sensitivity that many of the propaganda warriors on either side have not the slightest interest in doing, to our great cost as a people.