THE Harare convent girl in a bright red woolly jersey was the youngest by far in a committee room in parliament, but she revealed the public loathing and failure of President Robert Mugabeâ€™s poisonous state-controlled media like none of the experts there could.
â€œIf I can go to America to study medicine, I will never come back again,â€ she told the panel of MPs. â€œThe media made me hate my country.â€ The crowd cheered and clapped rapturously.
She spoke at a public meeting on Saturday called by parliamentâ€™s media committee to hear evidence on the state-controlled daily newspapers, radio and television whose servile adulation of Mugabe, their mendacity and hate-speech against his critics, are legend.
It is unlikely the MPs expected the spontaneous and unprecedented outpouring of anger and scorn from about 200 ordinary people who railed for three hours against the media that hold a monopoly enforced by draconian law â€” and when that failed, by bombs against their independent rivals.
â€œThe Herald is the only newspaper in the world that is allowed to publish such crap,â€ raged businessman Paddington Japajapa, to more cheers.
Six months into Zimbabweâ€™s coalition government, Mugabe continues to defy undertakings in his agreement with Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai of the main MDC, to relax his control of the daily press and electronic media.
Not a single application has been considered by Mugabeâ€™s authorities for new television stations, ensuring that Zimbabwe Television (ZTV)â€™s stultifying propaganda faces no local competition. However, the private satellite dishes encrusting the grimy housing compounds of the secret police, bringing them the BBC, Sky News and CNN, show how even the converted cannot endure the tedium of ZTV.
The ZBC, whose transmitters reach only 30% of the country, is similarly guaranteed a monopoly because it remains illegal for anyone else to set up a radio station. Proprietors of at least three proposed newspapers are anxiously awaiting the official go-ahead even though the notorious government commission that closed down four newspapers and banned hundreds of journalists has itself expired in confusion. But they dare not start their presses for fear of being closed down by presidential fiat.
â€œThere is no difference between this inclusive government and the previous government in respect of media control,â€ said Abel Chikomo, director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum. â€œMugabe remains in total control. It is critical for him to be able to keep people ignorant and uninformed, so they donâ€™t know what their rights are; they cannot hold him to account and they donâ€™t know whatâ€™s going on.â€
Finally grinding towards establishment is a new media commission, called for in the coalition agreement, with significantly reduced powers from the old organisation of â€œmedia hangmenâ€. Its members are meant to be chosen jointly by media experts and MPs, but the process has been fouled with charges that MPs from Tsvangirai MDC allowed cronies of Mugabe to slip into the lists after threats by MPs of Zanu PF to block the commission indefinitely.
One change that the uneasy cohabitation between the two leaders has brought is that the propaganda has changed subtly. Instead of Tsvangirai daily being drenched with expletives like â€œprostituteâ€, â€œrunning dogâ€, â€œbootlickerâ€, the state media simply censor and distort his remarks to make him sound like a Mugabe acolyte.
Tsvangiraiâ€™s officials lost patience with this in May while he was visiting America and Europe. The Herald reported nothing of his warm encounter with President Obama, but instead put Mugabe on the front page with a picture of an Iranian official. The Prime Minister, a tabloid-sized free newsletter boasting large glossy pictures of Tsvangirai, was launched on the streets of Harare to joyous acclamation.
Every Wednesday now, about 60 000 copies are circulated around the country, while The Herald, from 120 000 a day about 10 years ago, can barely manage 20 000 now.
â€œWe are the biggest newspaper in the country, and we are nowhere near meeting demand.â€ said Andrew Chadwick, Tsvangiraiâ€™s communications director. â€œIt shows how people have been starved of decent information.â€
By Jan Raath