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Editor’s Memo

Spook City

I WAS rather intrigued to hear from presidential spokesman George Charamba that British High Commissioner Sir Brian Donnelly speaks “for and through” the Zimbabwe Independent. Sir Brian

was probably equally surprised.

Charamba was writing in the Sunday Mail last weekend. I was not his primary target. He reserved the bulk of his vitriol for our occasional contributor Chido Makunike, writing on this occasion in the Financial Gazette about Andy Meldrum’s deportation, and the Sunday Mirror’s Scrutator columnist. Both had pointed to the incalculable damage done to Zimbabwe’s international image by this maladroit move.

Meldrum had become a cause celebre, Makunike noted, while the Scrutator suggested those responsible were enemies of the state working against inter-party dialogue.

Charamba regally brushed aside my commentary on Meldrum last week as the predictable outpouring of a British mouthpiece: “I will ignore reactions from Idden (sic) Wetherell and the Daily News. After all, Donnelly speaks for, and through them,” he claimed.

I will let the Daily News answer for itself. But for my part I will just point out the following. Since his arrival in Harare I have met Sir Brian a number of times at public functions. We have exchanged a few courtesies and chatted. But we are invariably surrounded by dozens of other people. I have also had lunch with him at a local hotel in the company of other editors. That’s about it.

No secret meetings, no confidential briefings, nothing our inept intelligence service could misconstrue. This is no criticism of Sir Brian, but we saw a good deal more of his predecessor, Petter Longworth, perhaps because he was an ex-press man and life then was more relaxed.

I can readily understand why state agents like Charamba should want to suggest newspapers like the Independent and Daily News have a special relationship with the British High Commissioner. It is part of a propaganda offensive that claims our newspapers are puppets of the British imperialists. Similar stories have been invented about the MDC.

But what is remarkable is the way these accusations are casually made in the complete absence of any evidence. And made by individuals who are forever lecturing the media on professional ethics!

It would be nice to have just one piece of evidence from them to show they haven’t altogether made it up. But alas, while claiming to be “in the know” about this and that, they clearly know nothing!

Readers may recall Security minister Nick Goche’s indiscreet revelation last year that the British High Commissioner was under surveillance. If so, Goche’s agents don’t seem to have uncovered very much. Now, I am informed, the CIO is giving its full attention to editors from the independent press.

In a sense this should be a good thing. They will very quickly discover that we have nothing to hide. I tend to live my life as an open book on the grounds that furtiveness breeds suspicion. I make no secret of my dislike for the corrupt and brutal regime that has pauperised and terrorised this country. And I would like to think that the same principles that guided my opposition to the regime of Ian Smith in the 1970s are evident in what I write and say now.

But all is not as it should be. The intelligence service, like the police and army, has been thoroughly politicised. It tells President Mugabe what he wants to hear.

This is evident from remarks he made about Joe Winter and Mercedes Sayagues when they were deported in 2001. We have heard him say other extraordinary things about journalists which the media community knows to be false. In an April ZTV interview Mugabe claimed Morgan Tsvangirai had held telephone conversations with Tony Blair. Where was he getting that from? Wire-tappers for whom every voice in London seems like Blair’s?

More recently state spokesmen have made silly claims about meetings in the Botswana desert involving British and American officials and MDC representatives. Strive Masiyiwa was reported as present at one such meeting. In fact no such meetings took place in Botswana. And Masiyiwa was in Lagos at the time. Nor has there been any meetings between independent journalists and US Assistant Secretary of State Walter Kansteiner as the regime persistently claims.

It is clear from all this that intelligence-gathering in Zimbabwe is either defective or creative. Whatever the case, no country is well-served when its leaders are fed false information and make judgements on the basis of that false information. The consequences of such political manipulation of the intelligence process can often be acutely embarrassing to the state, as recent court disclosures show.

The latest batch of inventive stories involve Andy Meldrum. And they are identical to what was said about Winter and Sayagues, hinting darkly at some secret agenda. In other words, they emanate from the same lies factory. This is probably the same production line responsible for claims in the state media that there was “torture of pre-school children” during the MDC-called stayaway.

As the regime becomes more insecure and therefore more desperate, it will abuse the intelligence-gathering process in the same way it is abusing the police and army to maintain its sclerotic grip on power.

Towards the end of the Rhodesian era in the late 1970s, professional intelligence officers submitted reports showing the bush war had become unsustainable. But Smith, it is said, listened to advice that fitted his mindset.

History is now repeating itself. Zimbabweans no longer believe what the state tells them about its critics because they don’t trust its sources. But one of the unfortunate side-effects of this disinformation campaign is that President Mugabe, now nearing the end of his long but badly blemished reign, is likely to become even more isolated from day-to-day realities as his courtiers block the flow of accurate information upon which sound policy should be based.

One of the interesting things to come out of the Meldrum case has been the split in government between those sensible enough to see the damage caused by the illegal abduction and deportation of a widely-respected foreign correspondent, and the Mugabe die-hards who don’t give a damn about the consequences as they burn their bridges to the international community.

As for Sir Brian, I appreciate the Longworths were a hard act to follow. But a few more parties in their lavish tradition where diplomats mingle with the fourth estate could give our watchers something to report on!

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