Zimbabwe Review

Reflections on Zimbabwe

Posts Tagged ‘media’

Is Zimbabwe a ‘free’ society, or is it not?

Posted by CM on October 15, 2009

For those readers whose diet only consists of Western media such as CNN, BBC and the many others of that ilk, the answer to the question probably seems so obvious even posing it must seem strange to them. The likely clear-cut answer for them is ‘of course Zimbabwe is not a free country. That’s where the president has ruled for decades and steals elections to continue to do so, where opposition political officials are beaten up and presecuted, where white farmers with title deeds are chased of their farms with no legal recourse, etc, etc…’

Indeed, all these are very much part of the reality of present-day Zimbabwe. But it would be a mistake to believe that these sad examples give a clear answer to the free/unfree question. And of course who is to define what ‘free’ means anyway? It depends on the definer.

So, for example, fto the white Zimbabwean who has had his farm taken away and can do nothing about it, of course Zimbabwe is not free. But a black Zimbabwean who risks being unfairly targeted for his political affiliation today but who has property and prospects he didn’t before and who believes he suffered more and in different ways under the racially-based ‘unfreedom’ of Rhodesia, the answer may be different or more complicated.

This is a recurring theme of this blog: there are very few things about The Zimbabwe Crisis that are as clear-cut, simple and straightforward as is suggested by the dominant media.

Property rights are considered a key cornerstone of ‘the rule of law,’ a key definer of ‘freedom’ according to the dominant definitions of whether a country is considered free or not.  If you are a white farm-owner in Zimbabwe, you have plenty of reason to be worried about how much you can count on your ability to exert property rights. And for the foreseeable future, no one of any colour can be too sure that their tenure on any farmland in Zimbabwe is secure. So with regards to security of farmland, no one can feel too ‘free in Zimbabwe at the moment, even the recently resettled who must worry about the possibility of being displaced on some politician’s whim.

Yet in the urban areas and in regards to residential or non-farm commercial land, the title deed is as established and respected as proof of ownership as anywhere else in the world.

The state media is not only astonishingly dull, narrow and boring for a country of Zimbabwe’s ‘sophistication,’ it is so insecure that you will simply never read or hear any (mainly political) views that differ from the thinking of the dominant clique of ZANU-PF, the effective ruling party. In this regard Zimbabwe may not be very different from many other countries that nevertheless do not share its bad boy image. Ah, so clear proof that Zimbabwe is not free then?

Not so simple. Many private newspapers have been shut down over the years over silly pretexts, and the ruling authorities are so insecure about their popularity that private radio or TV stations that have become the routine norm in many other much poorer countries are not allowed. And as I found out during my recent month at home, the internet is scandalously hard to access because of the very poor connectivity, slow speeds and high costs that have resulted from the country’s isolation and lack of competition/capitalization of the sector.

Yet there is a small ultra-critical private media that exists. Critical newspapers from South Africa and beyond are freely on sale on the streets of Harare. Some argue that this is allowed because the authorities know that on the basis of cost and circulation, the penetration of these alternative media is very low and therefore of little threat to them, while allowing them to say, ‘See, we allow opposing views, we are not a dictatorship.’

And of course, in terms of the make up of its parliament, Zimbabwe can claim to be a democracy like relatively few others in Africa or beyond. Opposition parties have always been allowed, albeit thwarted in every way possible by means mostly foul, and now the previously all-dominant ZANU-PF must share fully half the elected parliamentary seats with the two MDC factions. Debate in parliament is robust, and heckling of the state president is not unknown, something for which swift death would ensue in many countries in the world.

So the free/unfree question cannot be answered in any simple and straightforward, obvious way.

Interestingly, some of the ways in which I most felt an oppressive atmosphere were often not in the typical or expected ones of fearing to express a critical political opinion or for one’s personal safety. It was instead in how every quasi-state authority seemed to disproportionately communicate in terms of threats, ‘directives’  and warnings to the public they ostensibly exist to serve.

The cash-strapped water, electricity, municipal, revenue and other authorities seemed to be in a competition to see which one could take out the most intimidating media advertisements to warn of the consequences of not paying up. There was not just an air of desperation about the ads, they seemed unusually menacing, disrespectful and contemptuous of the public in a way I could not remember having experienced so strongly in Zimbabwe before, nor anywhere else.

Police roadblocks seem excessively common in Zimbabwe, with some officers very showily armed. But they are not ‘political’ roadblocks so there is no fear of them on that basis. As in many countries, the police manning them seem more concerned about finding excuses to fine motorists for one thing or another, naturally preferably ‘off the record,’ than they are about anything else. And these common and frequent roadblocks may very well act as a deterrent to some crimes, or help to remove a certain percentage of unroadworthy vehicles from the country’s increasingly dangerous roads.

So it is not in a personal or political freedom sense that I found the many roadblocks disconcerting. But disconcerting I certainly did find them. I found it hard to dismiss that sense of a softly menacing presence that could easily turn on a citizen on the flimsiest excuse. My sense was far from, “Phew, I’m so glad I’m a law-abiding citizen with nothing to fear from the police/army and I’m so happy and relieved they are out in full force on the roads to protect me.”

It was not obvious that the very heavy police and military presence was to protect citizens rather than to intimidate and control them.

So is Zimbabwe a free or an unfree society? The most accurate answer I can give is that it is both, and not at all necessarily in the ways that one might expect.

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In UK reports about Zimbabwe, truth and distortion often co-exist

Posted by CM on December 9, 2008

Zimbabwean villagers have resorted to selling wild berries by the side of the road to buy food

Zimbabwean villagers have resorted to selling wild berries by the side of the road to buy food

The photo above and its caption recently appeared in a story in the UK publication The Independent. The headline of the article was  UN forced to cut food aid to Zimbabwe’s starving people.

It is one of the many articles chronicling the hunger in a once proudly food self-sufficient nation. As reports in the UK media go, it is a fairly “straight” article devoid of any of the hysterics that often accompany stories about Zimbabwe because of the deep, complicated, not always positive relations between the two countries over more than a century.

The reality of Zimbabwe is bad enough, but it is often made to sound even  worse  than it is because of the many overlaying and underlying issues beyond the obvious ones of horrific hyperinflation, hunger, political repression and so on.

An example is the caption accompanying The Independent’s otherwise admirably restrained, sober story. The women pictured are indeed selling “wild berries,” but everything else about the context of the photo and its caption in a story about hunger in Zimbabwe is plainly wrong, and quite probably in a deliberate effort to mislead, not as an error or out of mere ignorance.

The “wild berries” in the picture are called mazhanje in Shona, and are a widely appreciated seasonal delicacy in Zimbabwe. Many people enjoy their rich buttery taste, and they provide additional income to many rural folks who collect the fruit and sell it, often on roadsides. This has been a practice during the brief seasonal window when the fruit ripens for as long as I can remember.

The selling of the fruit by the women in the photo by the side of the road is therefore very much normal practice in Zimbabwe. It is not because they have suddenly “resorted to selling wild fruits by the side of the road to buy food” as a result of The Zimbabwe Crisis. The importance of selling this non-cultivated, freely-available fruit may have increased during these hard times, but it is hardly a practice that has been brought on in recent years  by the current economic difficulties as the caption, photo and placement in the article very subtly and cleverly imply. Mazhanje have always provided easy supplemental income in the areas of Zimbabwe where the tree grows.

The road side selling of this delicacy is such an age-old practice in Zimbabwe that I find it hard to believe that even a ‘parachute journalist’ bravely flying into the country for a few weeks under cover of being a tourist in order to earn their  “I did the Zimbabwe Crisis” stripes would have failed to find this out.

The average British reader, already trained over several years by their media to understand that ‘Mugabe-land’ is the world’s worst hell hole (“if only they had never interfered with the with the innocent, hard-working white farmers”) is naturally horrified at the true evil-ness of a despot who not only ‘unreasonably’ hates Britain, but confirms his nastiness by driving his people to sell “wild fruit” by the side of the road in order to alleviate their hunger. Oh my God, those poor oppressed people must be so desperate: to be driven to such humiliating survival extremes!

So the article, photo and caption together serve their propaganda purpose for an audience that does not have the context to know any better, and is inclined to eat up the thrust of the propaganda anyway, because of how it confirms what they already feel about Zimbabwe, and what they think they know about it.

Except the article in its totally as featured is a clever, subtle fraud. It is not journalism, but propaganda. The text of the article is largely factual, but the powerful graphic and its caption are not correct illustrations or appropriate accompaniments of the text.

The battle of/for Zimbabwe is being fought on many fronts, and for many more reasons than those stated publicly. Zimbabweans, let us be extremely wary of some of those who claim to be our “we-are-so-concerned-for your-plight”  friends.

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Mugabe vs. BBC, CNN

Posted by CM on September 29, 2008

A report by AFP:

Zimbabwe’s information minister has castigated western media for their coverage of President Robert Mugabe’s speech at the UN General Assembly, state media reported Friday.

Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said CNN and the BBC gave US President George W. Bush full coverage when he criticised Mugabe in his address to the Assembly this week, but denied Mugabe similar coverage for his speech.

“The so-called champions of press freedom, CNN and BBC cut the live broadcast when the President was hitting hard, full throttle, with a volley of intellectual punches left, right and centre,” Ndlovu said.

“Bush was given full coverage to demonise our President and our nation but our President was not given equal time to defend himself and his country.

“They always claim that they give balanced information through their media but they have proved themselves to be suffering from inexactitudes and stretches of imagination. I know why my predecessor threw them out of Zimbabwe.”

In his speech at the UN, Bush said the people of Zimbabwe needed help to free themselves from suffering under a “tyrannical regime.”

Mugabe hit back saying Bush “has much to atone for and very little to lecture us on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” adding that the US leader’s hands “drip with the innocent blood of many nationalities.”

The propaganda war continues at full throttle.

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The bizarre case of Tsvangirai’s Australian ghost speechwriter

Posted by CM on July 10, 2008

by Chido Makunike

I had initially missed it, but I have since found out that the Guardian (UK) sought to explain how it came about that on June 25 it ran an article with MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s byline, only to have the “author”  deny having written the article the next day, causing the paper to remove it from its website.

What caused a furore about the article was its call for UN peace keepers in Zimbabwe, which was interpreted by many as a call for military intervention.

Tsvangirai swiftly responded with a letter in which he said, “An article that appeared in my name published in the Guardian … did not reflect my position or opinions. I am not advocating military intervention in Zimbabwe by the UN or any other organisation.”

What was strange was that he did not out rightly contend that the article was a fabrication. He explained the mix up with a wishy washy, “Although the Guardian was given assurances from credible sources that I had approved the article this was not the case.”

Siobhain Butterworth, a Guardian editor, sought to explain what happened in an article on June 30. “The piece turned out to have been ghostwritten by a writer who works with the MDC” she tells us, also explaining that the practice is a lot more commonplace than readers may realise.

So far sort of okay. One can understand that busy politicians would have trusted writers who know their positions on important issues compose speeches and articles for them.

Apparently The Guardian used “an intermediary” to receive or commission the article. We are not told if the idea to feature the article was Tsvangirai/the MDC’s, The Guardian’s or the ghost writer’s.

Asks Hunter rhetorically, “Why did the Guardian use an intermediary?” The answer she got from her colleague Toby Manhire, the Guardian’s comment editor, shocked me.

“The MDC is a disparate and diffuse organisation,” Manhire says authoritatively, somewhat surprisingly speaking like a person intimately familiar with the inner workings of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party. To Zimbabwean readers, if the name “Manhire” looks like  a name in Shona, I assure you in this case its owner isn’t, judging from his picture. So Mr. Manhire’s helpful insight about the sort of organization the MDC is is not because he is a homeboy.

I have previously expressed surprise at how the Guardian acts like the MDC’s publicity department. Sure the MDC is completely crowded out of the official media space in Zimbabwe and I can understand how it would gravitate towards any sympathetic media, especially if it is as prominent as the Guardian. But I would not have thought it was the business of distant newspapers to show such open partiality for a political party in a foreign land as the Guardian does for the MDC.

Ah  well, but let me not let suspicion and paranoia carry me away. Perhaps it is just part of Mr. Manhire’s job to know a lot about the world’s opposition parties!

Trying to explain why it did not get/seek comment straight from the source, Hunter explains how, “The MDC was also in the middle of a political crisis. Tsvangirai had taken refuge in the Dutch embassy in Harare after pulling out of the presidential election amid concerns that MDC supporters would suffer intimidation and violence.”

So, “The comment desk turned to James Rose, an Australian with a background in journalism and a trusted source for pieces from Tsvangirai as he’d supplied a comment piece from the MDC leader in April. Rose wasn’t paid either time, ” Hunter says Manhire told her.

This is the first hint that the comment piece with Tsvangirai’s name on it was not volunteered by the “author” or his party, but was solicited by the Guardian, no doubt trying to do its heroic bit for the downtrodden Zimbabweans. Very noble I’m sure, but I am still very suspicious of the level of pro-activeness by the paper: soliciting the commentary, doing so through a distant non-Zimbabwean “intermediary,” and Manhire’s bending over backwards to give very weak excuses for why he couldn’t have gotten the comment from some other MDC official if Tsvangirai was unreachable during his period of “exile” in the Dutch embassy (during which time he gave some international interviews, I think including with the Guardian’s own “Chris McGreal in Harare.”)

And what on earth does it mean that Australian James Rose had “supplied a comment piece from the MDC leader in April?” I do not at all find it re-assuring to learn that perhaps a lot of the material that comes to light as the thoughts of the man who wants to be the next president of Zimbabwe might actually be the thoughts of an Australian! I have nothing against Australians, but I think my trouble with this as a Zimbabwean should be so obvious it doesn’t need much elaboration.

Apart from just how much his own man Mr. Tsvangirai is, I find it incredible that a man who has to a large extent been successfully tarred with the brush of “puppet of the imperialist West” by Mugabe should be so consistently careless in having that charge stick to him by persistent bungling in managing how he comes across to the world. There might well be several ways in which perhaps he could make convincing arguments for having an Australian write his articles for him, but it is putting things mildly to say that in the context of how Mugabe has framed what The Zimbabwe Crisis is about, this does not at all help how Tsvangirai comes across.

Hunter goes on to further amaze me by relating how Rose has “has worked with the MDC on four or five pieces, published under Tsvangirai’s name, which have appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Melbourne Age among other newspapers – one that appeared in the Age, last month, also called for a UN peacekeeping operation in Zimbabwe.”

“In this case, when Rose got the go-ahead for Tsvangirai’s Guardian piece from his contact (second hint that the article was initiated by the Guardian)– an MDC spokesperson who works closely with Tsvangirai – he drafted the article without input from anyone else based on what he already knew. This was unusual but he assumed that because the MDC was in crisis it couldn’t do more. He read the finished piece over the phone to his contact, who approved it for publication.

If all this is true, the idea that this casual, third-party way is how the MDC communicates important messages to the world is incredible! A foreigner can write and have published articles on Zimbabwean policy issues on behalf of the country’s main opposition party “without input from anyone else?” Is this a political party ready to assume office or a bunch of jokers we are dealing with here?

Hunter claims Rose said it was “unusual” to not get input from MDC officials for such an article and that in this case it happened because he “assumed” the MDC “couldn’t do more” because it was in crisis! My ass! How is it that an Australian is allowed to be in such a position of influence and closeness to the center of Zimbabwe’s opposition hiearchy as to be able to make such “assumptions” on such a potentially important issue. An article with Tsvangirai’s name on it is the official position of Zimbabwe’s main opposition party to the world! How can such a crucial function be left in the hands of an Australian freelancer?!

It is not just outrageous that it had such potentially disastrous consequences for Tsvangirai this time, it is also incredible that even the distant Guardian took this arrangement as “normal” based on past practice.

Manhire wrote his own cryptic account of why the supposed Tsvangirai article was taken down from the Guardian’s site. There is nothing in it that Hunter does not go over in her fuller article. But in the comments section, a reader made some good point in response to Manhire.

Aram Harrow writes, “This retraction doesn’t provide enough information.

If you don’t want to print the name of the consultant who provided the article (Manhire does not mention Rose by name at all, unlike Rose in her article), at least you could tell us where he got the article from and what led him to believe it was genuine. You should also explain what provisions you have in place to stop this from happening again.

The original article was extremely provocative and you published it at a time of international crisis. Your readers deserve a far better explanation than you have so far given.”

Essentially, what we have here is the bizarre situation of an English paper getting in touch with its Australian contact to write a position paper for Zimbabwe’s MDC party and then simply call up the purported “MDC spokesperson who works closely with Tsvangirai” to have him or her to put a verbal “X” on the document on the article. Amazing and incredible, unforgivable in all the wrong ways!

And since we are told that Rose wrote the article on his own “based on what he knew” about the MDC’s positions (which is contradicted by Tsvangirai’s repudiation of the call for peacekeepers in Rose’s article) I wonder if Rose called anybody at all for final approval after writing it. Based on everything else Hunter telIs us in her article, I’m not sure I believe that there was any final checking of the acceptability of the article by Rose with the claimed close Tsvangirai aide.

What also comes out from Hunter’s account is the casual disrespect the Guardian exhibits for Tsvangirai and the MDC. Manhire’s characterization of the party suggests a close familiarity with it, but the way the paper skipped over its leader and other top officials to contact a foreign freelancer in its bid for an article from the MDC suggests a real contempt resulting from that familiarity.

And if there was a final validation call about the article, how could the “MDC spokesperson who works closely with Tsvangirai” have approved the bit about the peace keepers if it was not MDC policy? Did the “spokesperson” not hear that part during the phone call? Did s/he not know it would be controversial? Why not? Did s/he agree with the idea of peace keepers, only for the party to then back down when they realised what a significant new policy direction it implied in the ensuing public furore?

Tsvangirai and the MDC have made brave contributions to giving the marauding Mugabe a tough time over the last few years,making an important contribution to eventual change in Zimbabwe. They have bravely borne brutality and all kinds of skullduggery from the Mugabe regime. They probably have been robbed of clean electoral victory at least twice. They are clearly the mistreated underdogs in the unfolding Zimbabwean drama and have generally received my sympathy, if not my full support because of how thy have simply failed to inspire me on many counts.

But I am increasingly alarmed at the prospect of an MDC government led by Morgan Tsvangirai. Incidences like the screw up of this article and what has been revealed about the careless, casual way the MDC does important business and fails to keep tight control over its image are to me worrying signs of how they are not our way out of our present political wilderness.

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Are Peta Thornycroft’s Zimbabwe articles for the UK Daily Telegraph news or opinion?

Posted by CM on March 24, 2008

Peta Thornycroft, a political editorialist who somehow gets away with being considered a reporter, has written an article headlined, “Robert Mugabe turns the screw on Zimbabwe’s dwindling white farmers” for the UK Daily Telegraph.

Mr. Mugabe is a cold-hearted, violent despot who has shamefully brought Zimbabwe to ruin under the guise of a black empowerment that has gone horribly wrong. He is brilliant at turning people off and revels in his notoriety in the Western world. He is now stuck in the rut of justifying trying to stay on in power long after his usefulness expired by invoking racial bitterness at what he considers his spurning by a Britain whose approval he once so slavishly sought.

Mugabe’s Western notoriety is fed by the shrill racial emotionalism of people like Ms. Thornycroft and publications like the Daily Telegraph. The opposing shrillness of Mugabe and his supporters on one side and Thornycroft and papers such as The Telegraph on the other encapsulates the racial, political and historical bitterness of what Zimbabwe symbolically represents.

In her latest article, Thornycroft relates the experiences of white farmers battling government efforts to evict them from their farms. What struck me about the article is her almost palpable bitterness and outrage at what the subjects of her article are undergoing. And indeed, countless numbers of Zimbabweans have suffered all manner of hardships and indignities in the county’s extremely violent history, of which the last few years at the hands of its latest government is just the most recent episode.

Thornycroft’s writing is heart-felt and gripping to read, but it is not reporting. It belongs in the editorial/opinion section of The Telegraph, not its news pages. The outraged emotionalism of her main theme, the treatment of white farmers at the hands of Mugabe, has become as raw and knee-jerk as Mugabe’s uncontrolled, apoplectic rage at the mere mention of the word “Britain.”

Writing about a white farmer on trial for resisting eviction from his dairy farm outside Harare, she mentions that “the property has been targeted by Elias Musakwe, an executive of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.” She then goes on to mix giving us information and opinion with sentences like, “He has planted maize, which will never germinate (my italics), on the cattle pasture, and is intimidating the family by parking a tractor against the Therons’ daughter’s bedroom window.”

While Thornycroft does not help her non-agricultural readers by explaining why the maize “will never germinate,” there are indeed several reasons why this could be the case. But without stating what they are in this particular situation, the insertion of that phrase here not only is her opinion in what is ostensibly a news story, my suspicious mind detects a sneer behind it.

How is that important? As a way of bolstering my refrain about the subjectivity and emotionalism of a large section of the British media in writing about Zimbabwe.

Ms. Thornycroft, who has publicly talked about how she gave up her British citizenship in order to be able to retain her Zimbabwean one, is not only getting more emotional in her reporting, she is also getting sloppy. The man whose name she gives as “Musakwe” is not only an RBZ executive, he is also a public figure, well known as a music producer in Zimbabwe. Ms. Thornycroft has lived in Zimbabwe for many years and it is presumably the expectation of The Telegraph that she corresponds for about Zimbabwe that she will be knowledgeable, thorough and authoritative on her subject. Given all this, to me it is an example of the kind of blind, emotional sloppiness to which she has descended that she could not spell this well known man’s name correctly as “Musakwa.”

She mentions another besieged white farmer, Doug Taylor-Freeme, who “has a gang of men allied to the ruling Zanu-PF party camped outside his kitchen door, ordered there by Chief Wilson Memakonde, a Zanu-PF senator who has already taken possession of five white-owned farms.”

The chief has recently gained infamy as a “multiple farm owner” in mockery of the Mugabe regime’s stated one-person one-farm policy. Apart from his notoriety in this regard, he would obviously also be well-known as a politician and a traditional leader, being a senator as well as a chief. It is therefore astonishing to me that Thornycroft, with her long experience and deep, quite obvious emotional ties to  Zimbabwe would mis-spell a Shona name as well known as Nemakonde.

The Telegraph and British readers for whom Thornycroft writes are too far from ground zero to catch these errors that would be inexcusable in a cub reporter’s story, let alone a famous “foreign correspondent” such as Madame Thornycroft. I can also understand how even when pointed out, those readers would consider these errors as really minor issues that in no way change the import of Thornycroft’s main point: how Mugabe is persecuting the white farmers.

Besides, surely everyone understands that those awkward African names are so difficult to remember and spell! How big of an issue can it be that Thornycroft can’t tell the difference between Musakwe and Musakwa, or between Memakonde and Nemakonde?

“Geez, you Africans are so sensitive, such a chip on your shoulders!”

Perhaps, but imagine the derision an African reporter who has lived in Britain for decades would get for not being able to know what a faux pas it was to not understand the weight of an error like spelling the name “Brown” as “Crown.” The error is far more significant than the misplacement of one letter.

My point is not to dispute the substance of Thornycroft’s article. I am in no position to know the veracity of her accounts, but it is not in doubt that white farmers have had a torrid time at the hands of the Mugabe government in recent years.

I am using this example of Thornycroft’s writing to re-iterate my point about how professionalism, accuracy and objectivity about Zimbabwe have largely gone out the door in much of British media reporting.

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The Zimbabwe story: from merely tragic tale to sinister agenda

Posted by CM on September 24, 2007

A recent UK visitor to Zimbabwe, writing in the September 24 edition of The Herald (Scotland) had the kind of contemplative, contextual report about the situation there I am crusading to argue has become all too rare in coverage of Zimbabwe, especially in the UK media. British media reports are suffused with an anti-Mugabe emotionalism whose causes are not hard to understand, given the present state of Zimbabwe, and Mugabe’s raw, bitter denunciations of Britain. But understandable as they may be, they distort the sad but complex reality of the implosion taking place in Zimbabwe.

As understandable as the antipathy to Mugabe is, particularly in Britain , we are now often served propaganda as much as we are served news by large parts of the UK media. Things are quite bad enough in Zimbabwe, without needing to embellish and spin them to distort that reality into making it seem even worse, as a lot of the international media frenziedly does.

Ian Whyte’s letter addresses the issue of sanctions, and whether it is correct for new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to have taken the approach of wanting no dealings with Mugabe. But the parts of it that relate to the often feverish, cleverly dishonest coverage of Zimbabwe are these:

The picture painted of Zimbabwe is of a country that has already collapsed. To go around Harare as I did is to find a city that, incredibly, is still functioning. Yes, the economy is dependent on a black market that changes daily and there are shortages (but not emptiness) in the shops. But plenty of cars move around, people go about their business and a white visitor is greeted with warmth and courtesy in a way no different from before.

I do not doubt the violent suppression of dissent, but I saw no evidence of the police and army presence on the streets that I have seen in other countries where civic society has all but broken down. I found considerable anger from my Zimbabwean friends (every one of whom strongly opposes the present regime) over press reports that imply that nothing is functioning or happening, and over some scenes shot by the media which they identify as doctored from outside.

This does a disservice to the amazing resilience that is such a characteristic in Africa, where 90% of the population struggle for food and necessities, and the allocation of farms to select “comrades” has run down agriculture. But when I visited Ghana in 1982 amid an economic crisis, worse shortages and more catastrophic breakdowns had not broken the spirit, nor paralysed activity. So it is in Zimbabwe.

This is what those of us in Zimbabwe, or outside but with umbilically close ties to it, know: there is great hardship, but not the picture of ‘collapse’ that is daily depicted. And the feeling of being picked on by certain media in some particularly ugly ways is one I hear more frequently from Zimbabweans at home and abroad.

The widely, strongly held feelings against the Mugabe regime in many quarters should not make the trash we so regularly read about even non-political issues acceptable. Just one example is the recent story that people were now resorting to eating dogs because more conventional kinds of meat are unavailable, or are too expensive. This was absurd from many angles, the strong cultural taboos against this just being one of them. But for a correspondent determined to submit his or her daily anti-Mugabe dig, these sorts of nuances are irrelevant. And yet it is quite easy to file daily anti-Mugabe stories just on the strictly factual basis of his many failures, without needing to scrape the bottom of the barrel in the manner so beloved of some correspondents.

The Zimbabwean media, which it would have been hoped would counter some of the worst excesses, is vastly out-gunned. Besides,we have become so focused on issues of politics, to almost the total exclusion of anything else, that we don’t pay much attention to how we are allowing who we really are to be caricatured in often crude terms that border on being racist.

In giving accounts of ways in which Zimbabweans are battling to cope with economic hardship and political repression, the most calamitous interpretations are used. A report about how economic hardship has resulted in the abandonment of many pets, a sad enough development, suddenly results in the crafty insinuation, “everybody in Zimbabwe is now eating their cats and dogs because they can’t find or afford beef and chicken!”

The correspondents concerned get away with this trash partly because they are mainly writing for a Western audience that does not know enough about Zimbabwe to be able to easily distinguish straight reportage from the shrill spin I complain about. Sometimes the reports merely entrench racial stereotypes that are already strongly held. The opportunity to use those reports to say ” ah, you see how tough times are forcing the natives to revert to their savage roots?” apparently often proves irresistible!

We often do not seem to notice that those reports are sometimes not just to illustrate how difficult life under Mugabe is, but to go beyond that to make broader, more sinister points about us as a people.

Zimbabweans, on the other hand, obviously do have the ability to know when what they are going through is being stretched, by either hyper-ideological or merely mercenary correspondents. Too often, the writing is not so much to inform, as it is to score points against the hated Mugabe, even if it means painting the rest of us with crude stereotypes.

It is interesting how the many Zimbabwean websites deal with some of the most crude distortions. Why does the Zimbabwean media not more robustly protest and counter the worst distortions? Apart from being out-gunned and pre-occupied with political intrigue, there is widespread fear of being accused of being a Mugabe supporter, one of the worst insults one can hurl against a Zimbabwean in the current climate. Then there is the naive, misplaced feeling that even the distorting, racist sections of the media pouring out reports of complete Zimbabwean dysfunction under Mugabe’s tutelage are somehow “on our side.” Those of our news outlets dependent on donors are also not going to be inclined to go into territory that may make their benefactors doubt the anti-Mugabe credentials that they may have peddled to get their funding in the first place.

So many find it safer to not express the widely felt Zimbabwean outrage at some of the racist takes on events that we increasingly see peddled under the guise of news. The Zimbabwean websites will, therefore, generally simply ignore the more lurid interpretations of events offered by some of the more shrilly ideological correspondents for international media. Those reports are enthusiastically featured as welcome “neutral” signs of not just Mugabe’s incompetence and repression; but also with a cleverly, thinly veiled subtext of general African “savagery.”

It is not enough for us to just ignore these frequent and damaging distortions. We must counter them every chance we get. It is in our interest to make it clear to the world that we may be politically oppressed and reduced in economic status by the mis-rule of our country, but we remain a proud, dignified people despite the many deprivations we endure. The essential fact of the firmly intact Zimbabwean humanity is being sacrificed in the shrill propaganda war, in which we are considered collateral damage.

Ian Whyte very ably captured the holistic view of Zimbabweans’ unhappiness with affairs in their country, coupled with resentment at some of the deliberately distorted depictions that have other agendas than concern for a bruised, oppressed people. Many of the correspondents for foreign media very carefully pick the many indices of hardship to write another story beneath the main story. They could easily feature the more nuanced reality that Whyte does, but that is hardly likely to impress their publications, who already have a standard “Zimbabwe story” position into which all submissions must fit if they are to be published.

More of us Zimbabweans should be seeking to use every forum available to us to tell our own tale as a people, both the joys and the sorrows. We are far too dependent on our collective experience being related by others, whether they are benign, neutral or hostile to us.

Let us relate, explain and interpret Zimbabwe’s sad reality under its present rulership without fear, favour or equivocation. But let us not be afraid to protest when that reality is twisted to make sinister distortions about our basic humanity.

Chido Makunike

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