Manheru and handlers fighting a losing battle

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ONE of the key characteristics of Zimbabwe’s flawed political system is the arrogance of those in power and the blind loyalty of their supporters.

Opinion by Nhlanhla Ngwenya

Often times, the leaders and their followers are at pains to parry genuine concerns of the people with an attitude in which they try to portray themselves as the only ones who know what problems the country is facing, their root causes and the solutions.

Their gullible surrogates often bolster this posturing by projecting themselves as the most educated and the only ones ordained with the proverbial King Solomon’s wisdom, confusing education with wisdom and effective leadership in the process.

The majority of Zimbabweans are then projected as ignoramuses bereft of sound ideological grounding; dunderheads who cannot read in-between the lines; idiots who cannot tell the difference between day and night or simply morons who can only be served from the captivity of ignorance through “official wisdom” of some government authorities and their supporters.

A rough scan of opinion pieces and comments made by selected contributors particularly in the Zimpapers stable and the Zanu PF-controlled public broadcaster, ZBC, proves this.

But that would be perfectly fine if this were only restricted to their freedom to hold an opinion. However, it becomes a problem when that view becomes the cornerstone for spin aimed at creating a big lie, which is then relentlessly peddled as fact to mislead the public.

On June 1, for instance, the faceless Herald columnist Nathaniel Manheru, widely believed to be President Robert Mugabe’s spokesperson George Charamba, illustrated this. In an article headlined Elections: Dangling the Mascot of Reforms, he sought to suffocate the glaring need and justified demands for media reforms in Zimbabwe with his usual acerbic arguments whose import was to dismiss the quest for the democratisation of the media sector as baseless.

With his usual shenanigans, he opted for his favoured narrow and now tedious escape route: muddling the demand for the promotion and adequate protection of Zimbabweans’ civil liberties through political skullduggery. At the end of the article, it was not clear how a genuine demand for the democratisation of the media space — itself a key ingredient for the exercise of freedom of expression and access to information — is a sinister MDC agenda.

Manheru, without a shred of evidence, also implied that those that are advocating the enjoyment of these basic liberties are the party’s “tongs”, including those that began demanding these universal rights well before the formation of the MDC such as the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa).

But such is to be expected given the increasing pressure exerted both locally and regionally on Manheru’s bosses in government to adopt democratic reforms in line with the terms of the Global Political Agreement, as well as government’s obligations under the regional and international instruments on the protection of human rights.

Moreso, when the Zanu PF-run information ministry has defied government principals’ instructions for it to implement media reforms the three parties in the coalition government have agreed to before Sadc leaders.

Clearly, Manheru was simply trying to advertise his ministry’s reactionary agenda, political intransigence and its open disregard for decisions taken by the principals in government and Sadc leaders.

In a normal country where there is a proper constitutional order and functioning government, his diatribes should have invited drastic consequences in terms of his conditions of service as a civil servant and presidential spokesperson. His attempt to undermine the media sector while normalising the abnormal shows he is taking Zimbabweans for granted.

It is a matter of public record the state has hijacked the public media, specifically Zimpapers and ZBC turning them into supine mouthpieces of Zanu PF in violation of their public service mandate and to the detriment of the people in general.

Indeed, all media have a public responsibility to report fairly and professionally about events taking place in the country, but the public media has a public mandate and should not be used as mouthpieces of one party and its leaders.

Even as the private media choose who they want to support among the political actors, for example, they need to do so within the limits of professional journalism ethics because they are accountable to their readers in the end.

And apart from being responsible to the public, the public media should, at all times, reflect all aspects of Zimbabwean society, including different cultures and views. That is the whole idea of having publicly-owned media — to serve the public interest.

Ministers of information have over the years systematically rendered the Mass Media Trust (MMT) — a buffer between government and Zimpapers, in this case, to safeguard the public interest — dysfunctional through inadequate funding and staffing it with political appointees while allowing the ministry of information to usurp its powers, does not invalidate one crucial point.

That is, after independence, the Nigerian government provided a gift of approximately US$5 million to the Zimbabwean government so that it could acquire the majority shares in the South African-owned Argus printing company, publishers of some of the Zimpapers titles on behalf of the public. These shares were to be held in trust by the MMT on behalf of Zimbabweans.

In 2001, the then information minister Jonathan Moyo was reported as advocating the dissolution of the Trust and its replacement with something called the Multimedia and Information Trust. There is no public record to show that this ever happened.

If indeed the Trust was dissolved and the Zimpapers stable is now running just like any other private entity, as Manheru suggests, it would be necessary for him to provide details on what happened and who benefitted, as well as the current situation.

It is unimaginable that his claims are true given that Zimpapers is a publicly-listed company.

Even more crucial is for him to explain why the principals insisted on the reconstitution of the MMT as one of the measures to insulate the state-hijacked public media from political abuse and manipulation. Are they “ignoramuses”, too?

Zimbabweans deserve respect and a serious explanation from public officials, not incoherent diatribes against those demanding reforms.

Mugabe has also expressed his disappointment with media, including the government-run outlets, itself a vindication of those demanding media reforms. So what does Manheru think of what Mugabe said about the state media which he apparently controls as shown by his long-winded column in the Herald?

Manheru further contends that anyone, including the MDC parties, is free to establish their own media houses if they feel ill-treated by the public media. What sort of argument is that? The public media is for everyone, not just him and his bosses.

Besdies, he knows that Zimbabwe has a raft of laws that impose undemocratic restrictions on the establishment of media houses, in addition to unwarranted controls and extra-legal hindrances that feed onto the pervasive culture of impunity enjoyed by media rights violators suspected to be aligned to coercive arms of the state.

It is a fact that Zimbabwe only just witnessed the growth of the print media industry after the inauguration of the inclusive government following years of being subjected to a one-sided narrative of the Zimbabwean story peddled by the captive public media.

Similarly, the broadcasting sector remains under tyrannical controls anchored in the Broadcasting Services Act. Scores of aspiring community radio and commercial broadcasters remain unlicenced despite applications to the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe.

These are the issues. Manheru’s conspiracy theories are simply designed to defend and protect a repressive order through authoritarian control of media. Fortunately, it does not work anymore in this digital and social media age. Manheru and his handlers are fighting a losing battle due to technological advances and changes on the media landscape.

Ngwenya is the director of Misa Zimbabwe.

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