By Chido Makunike
IT has been several years now since an “information and publicity” department was brought into being to spearhead government’s offensive against its many opponents.
>Under Jonathan Moyo that department has certainly been energetic in defence of an embattled regime. Say what you like about Moyo, in terms of effort put into singing for his supper and continuing to enjoy the protection of Mugabe, one must give him an A+.
Since Moyo came onto the scene as Mugabe’s propagandist he has been very busy. Aippa and Posa are two of the most notorious laws Moyo is largely “credited” for, and will be a mark on Mugabe’s record long after he departs from the public stage.
A number of media houses have been shut down under one pretext or another. Several foreign journalists have been deported unceremoniously, and Zimbabwe has become a fortress against most others who might want to come in. The information and publicity department has expressed great glee at the arrest and prosecution of journalists on very flimsy charges. The state media has been shed of whatever shred of credibility it had, to become an out and out propaganda arm of the ruling authority, with that propaganda being of an unusually shrill pitch.
While the efforts against the opponents of the Mugabe government by Moyo and his apparatus have been ferocious, what have been the results?
If “information and publicity” is mainly about the country putting its best foot forward in every respect, has that been achieved? While many voices who oppose the way Zimbabwe has been run by Mugabe & Co have been deprived of fora to air their disgust at the state of the country now, how has that benefited the nation?
If one looks at the reactions to the Mugabe government of even those sectors who would be expected to fully support him, the results are amazing given the amount of time, money and energy expended on propaganda over the last several years.
Let us look at a few examples. A storm brewed in Zanu-PF over the conflict between Moyo and his party boss Nathan Shamuyarira over whether or not to allow a British television crew in to interview the president. It was eventually allowed to do so against Moyo’s wishes, and he sulkily let everyone know what a mistake that was when the interview did not turn out to be particularly flattering to Mugabe. “I told you those imperialists would make Comrade Mugabe look bad” was the gist of Moyo’s reaction.
He apparently tried to forestall the Britons from being allowed to interview Mugabe by facilitating an earlier interview with a Kenyan newspaper that he presumably thought would be more sympathetic. Yet Mugabe did not come out smelling any more like roses in the East African Standard than on Sky News!
Both before and after the interviews, little apparent thought was given to the possibility that in trying to improve Zimbabwe and Mugabe’s international image, it might not just be a matter of who is allowed to talk to the president but of changing the many things that have resulted in their poor images.
In the vociferousness of the “information and publicity” effort flinging invective at George Bush, Tony Blair, the MDC and the other regular targets of the state media, no time is put into asking whether there are not things that need to be changed closer to home. Much is made of the cheers Mugabe is able to raise when he goes to South Africa, but in terms of real support which would be meaningful to Zimbabwe, far more ground appears to be lost than is being gained.
Muammar Gaddafi has not yet been labelled an imperialistic lackey by the state media, but Mugabe’s one-time best friend has turned a cold shoulder to him in favour of improved relations with the West. South Africa under Thabo Mbeki has given Mugabe breathing room without which he would have found it very difficult to avoid being overwhelmed by the many problems he has failed to prevent or solve, but you do not hear of that country enthusiastically supporting Mugabe.
When former Malaysian leader and purported close Mugabe friend Mahathir Mohamad recently defended himself against charges of giving Mugabe timber for the construction of his Borrowdale mansion, he seemed curiously lukewarm in his characterisation of Mugabe.
The gist of his response to the outrage expressed at the gift in some circles in Malaysia was “he was not so notorious when we gave him the timber!” It was not exactly a robust defence of his “friend!”
I found myself cringing at the realisation that Mugabe’s international image, fairly or unfairly, has sunk so low that even his once robust defenders seem to now only want to be associated with him at arms length!
But before we get too carried away in oppositional revelry, let us remember staunch Mugabe supporters like Sam Nujoma of Namibia. But even in that case the realities versus the rhetoric do not favour Mugabe’s image.
However similar the rhetoric, whatever fledgling official efforts between the governments to work together at regional propaganda, the differences do not reflect well on Zimbabwe. On the one hand you have a relatively long-serving president who would have liked to hold onto power longer, but relented to the public will and is passing on the baton of power with his country in a relatively sound state.
On the other hand you have an older, longer-serving president who has seen his electoral support plummet at every election as his country’s fortunes decline by any measure, but who talks of plodding on for years more despite the ruin and misery around him! No amount of “information and publicity”, vicious anonymously-penned weekly state press columns, catchy TV and radio jingles or repressive laws are likely to overcome these plain realities!
At home the mood in the state media is triumphalist, with the MDC and other opponents having been officially written off. Yet instead of showing the confidence of having public opinion and support on its side, the government over-reacts to minor “provocations” in a way that suggests it is more jittery than confident.
An interesting new development is the coming out into the open of all kinds of divisions in the ruling party. One ministry or department says one thing, another says the opposite the next day. Ministers issue invective against each other in ways no amount of “information and publicity” can paper over. The bitter divisions are more over issues of turf than ideological or policy differences. As things continue to unravel beyond the power of the spin doctors to explain away or justify, the picture that emerges is of chaos and disorder.
While his ministers use their portfolios to fight their personal battles right under his nose and very publicly, the president is made to look remote, out of touch and more like a lame duck everyday. It is almost as if the ministers have so written off their boss as an authority figure they no longer care how they make him look by taking pot shots at each other in front of him, as if he wasn’t even there!
The image of the government of Zimbabwe has deteriorated beyond being fixable by trying to organise soft, friendly interviews, trying to intercept e-mail messages or closing down one more media outlet. More of such desperate, spiteful actions are sure to come, but based on the evidence of the last several years of similar efforts, they will only serve to entrench the image of an outdated, repressive and scared ruling group that no longer has any clue how to do anything positive.
Chido Makunike is a regular contributor to the Zimbabwe Independent.