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Editor’s Memo

How it works

CHATTING to our publisher Trevor Ncube last week, he spoke of the corruption in the Russian media. One egregious example he gave is of a journalist who goes to interview someone and t

hen demands payment for the job. The interviewee then presents two packets, one for the journalist and another for the publisher.

A Russian media executive, Trevor said, made the stunning revelations at a recent conference in Prague. He boldly declared that he would continue to do it because if he did not, his competitors would.

For a country which in its heyday as the Soviet Union had propaganda as the working tool of communication, the vice is evidently far from dead. It has only taken a new dimension called “black PR”.

The origins of this PR mode can be traced to the huge public relations campaign in the country to mark the launch of McDonald’s in Moscow in the late 1980s. This was a PR stunt that turned into propaganda as Soviet journalists had no choice but to praise the only fast-food chain in town, particularly in the midst of a frenzy to praise anything Western as the country dumped Communism.

This propaganda/PR hybrid has had a lasting effect on the Russian public relations industry. It evolved into the so-called “black PR”, used mostly by political parties during election campaigns, when PR tools were combined with such methods as the pouring of disinformational garbage on political rivals. In this market, hundreds of millions of unaccounted dollars landed in the pockets of corrupt journalists and “PR technologists”.

Black PR has in a number of countries become an industry on its own where the media has been suborned to align themselves to strong political or commercial interests. Leading Russian PR consultant Andrew Sveshnikoff says black PR has become a useful tool for oil oligarchs and raw materials companies which use this combination of PR and propaganda as an alternative to outsourcing public relations services to professional companies. The more enterprising companies not only bought stories, editors and reporters, but entire media outlets.

The mainstream media then becomes a PR arm of a business entity or political party in an arrangement where media practitioners and media bosses benefit materially from this black PR.

Zimbabwe, which is powered largely by the black market, is in a number of respects not very far off from the Russian experience, especially during this election period. I have no evidence of money changing hands or journalists returning from farms with bags of potatoes and maize but our state media can pass for an extension of the ruling order. This is true because the government has told us that there is nothing wrong with this arrangement.

So when the aspirant for a senatorial seat in Nkulumane, Dumiso Dabengwa, tells the electorate that the Matabeleland Zambezi Water Project will be completed in 2007, it is reported in the government press in the same vein as “the sun will rise tomorrow”.

I hope the same reporter will visit Dabengwa in 2007 to interview him on how he achieved this miraculous feat that has eluded successive governments – including those of which he was a part – for nearly a century.

Remember the seven-year-old still incomplete Tokwe-Mukorsi dam project?

Certain private-sector entities also do not mind dabbling in black PR. They are very quick to pull out advertising from newspapers that write “negative” stories about them and reward those that produce puff pieces with long-term contracts secured by a black PR arrangement.

This is our own form of black PR and the opposition MDC, while castigating government for abusing the state media, will not mind getting the same treatment from the privately owned press in the country.

Opposition party officials have publicly stated that the death of the Daily News was catastrophic for them.

“The attack on the Daily News is not an attack on the owners of the paper to prevent them from becoming rich and making money,” Welshman Ncube told a Peace and Democracy Project seminar in Johannesburg in October 2003.

“It is principally an attack on the MDC, for the simple reason that if you remove the Daily News as a source of news, you have literally made it impossible for the opposition’s voice to be heard by the mass of people.”

At the Quill Club this year he complained that this paper has not given the opposition enough support. My foot!

Then I have had calls from senior MDC officials questioning why we write about the United People’s Movement and why we criticise the country’s main opposition party. “We cannot be competing for media space with this Jonathan Moyo party, he can go to ZBC if he wants coverage,” an MDC official lectured me two weeks ago.

Put simply, someone thinks we should be a PR extension of their party. That is poor politics.

Let me restate our role as a newspaper. We have a professional obligation to tell the story of Zimbabwe from differing viewpoints and this does not include fawning treatment of any individual or grouping. Nor does it include shutting out views because their authors may be unpopular.

I know it may be painful for some to discover they are as much subject to our searching spotlight as Zanu PF. But that’s the way it works.

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