Mugabe’s media war

Tom Rhodes
The Guardian
June 25, 2008

Zanu-PF’s intimidating grip on national and international media effectively quashed the opposition MDC’s campaign

There was one simple reason Zimbabwe’s opposition party withdrew from run-off elections this week: they couldn’t campaign in the first place. The ruling Zanu-PF party made sure that no pro-opposition material was aired by the state broadcasters, effectively blocking any country-wide campaign coverage. The private press could not fill the gap. After years of government harassment, the small, beleaguered independent press faced great restrictions in the run-off election period.

A western diplomat described the opposition leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, as a “prisoner of Harare”. MDC campaign rallies were banned, police arrested Tsvangirai five times, and roadblocks ensured that the campaign bus, the Morgan Mobile, stayed stationary. That left campaign ads via state broadcasters – the only ones allowed in the country – as one of the main means of outreach to Zimbabwe’s rural areas.

But the ruling party tightened its grip on the media to ensure no MDC coverage leaked out to the rest of the country, the Committee to Protect Journalists found in a special report, Bad to Worse in Zimbabwe. In May, the government dismissed Henry Muradzikwa, chief executive officer of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, and gave “forced holidays” to seven ZBC employees for allegedly defying orders to suppress favorable opposition coverage. Soon after, presidential spokesman George Charamba instructed all state media outlets to block MDC campaign advertisements and pro-opposition editorials. The newly appointed state media CEO, Happison Muchechetere, a staunch Mugabe loyalist, then made sure the airwaves were filled with pro-Mugabe programs and jingles.

According to the Electoral Act and guidelines set by the Southern African Development Community, all political parties are entitled access to the state broadcaster. But Muchechetere managed to defy this by claiming MDC material contained prohibited hate language, such as the words “political terrorism”, according to the Media Monitoring Project, a nongovernmental group analysing election coverage. This, however, did not stop the state broadcaster from airing vitriolic Zanu-PF rhetoric, the group found.
Ironically, opposition party leaders had called the run-up to the March 29 election the freest and fairest since the MDC’s 1999 inception. Confident of victory, Zanu-PF allowed state media to broadcast opposition campaign material and election results to be announced in vernacular languages to reach a wider audience. But after losing the March 29 elections, Mugabe started cracking down on anyone considered sympathetic to the opposition – including the private press.

Never a friend of the independent press, Mugabe’s government has closed several publications during his tenure, leaving only two independent weeklies printed in the country. According to one of those weeklies, the Standard, the government decided in June to obstruct newspaper dealers in three Zimbabwean towns from distributing its paper.

Private papers printed outside the country faced similar problems. The June 19 issue of the private weekly the Zimbabwean was impounded by the government. This comes on the heels of a newly imposed government import duty for foreign papers that costs the Zimbabwean £8,900 per shipment. The government also used a less nuanced approach: suspected security officers beat up two truck drivers carrying The Zimbabwean and burned the vehicle with 60,000 copies inside.

The two private radio stations that broadcast into parts of Zimbabwe, the London-based SW Radio and Washington’s Voice of America (VOA) have not fared any better. The signals for both stations are periodically jammed and one civilian now faces court charges of “committing criminal nuisance” by listening to the VOA programme in public. Even satellite dishes that occasionally pick up South African and Botswanian broadcasts were removed by pro-government militias in southern Zimbabwe, so citizens would not be subjected to “misleading reports”.

Has Mugabe’s media strategy worked? One local journalist told CPJ “if you live in the country where you can only hear the state radio and they have been playing the same propaganda for the past six years – it’s bound to have an effect.” At the same time, however, only 2,000 Zanu-PF supporters attended what was supposed to be one of Mugabe’s biggest rallies this week in Bulawayo. And local journalists told CPJ that many closet opposition supporters wear Zanu-PF T-shirts – just to avoid getting beaten.

© Guardian News and Media Limited 2008