Western and Zimbabwean media sharply differ in their reactions to Wikileaks Tsvangirai revelations

Jan 4, 2011

Several prominent media in Britain and the US have come out with high-profile stories expressing strong sympathy and support for embattled Zimbabwean prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai in the wake of the embarrassing-to-him 'Wikicables.' Yet even the thriving online Zimbabwe media, most of it based outside the country and most of it cool to hostile to president Robert Mugabe, has been much less supportive and sympathetic to Tsvangirai than one might have expected.
The leaked cables of US diplomats in Harare show that while they have given all kinds of strong support to Tsvangirai, they have a rather low opinion of him as an adversary of the wily Mugabe. However, far more damaging to Tsvangirai have been the revelations that while publicly calling on western nations to lift the 'targeted sanctions' they imposed on Mugabe and his inner circle, privately he was telling his western supporters to keep them in place.

Tsvangirai's MDC then-opposition party is thought to have worked with the sanctions-imposing countries to identify which Zimbabweans to put on the list. As a condition of forming a coalition government with Mugabe's ZANU-PF in early 2009, the MDC agreed to join their new governing in lobbying for the sanctions to be removed, which the western countries show no inclination to do, perhaps because of what the MDC said to them in private.

Mugabe & Co argue that rather than being 'targeted' at a few individuals, the measures have had widespread ill-effects on the economy, causing more suffering amongst the ordinary Zimbabweans political pressure on Mugabe is supposed to help bring about than on the selected individuals.              

Johannes Tomana, the attorney general is the most recent addition to the sanctions list of the US, on the basis of being partisan in the execution of his job, according to the US announcement. A few days later Tomana announced that he was convening a panel of legal experts to investigate bringing treason charges against Tsvangirai, on the Wikicable basis of him working with foreign powers to call for actions that are harmful to his country.

The defense of Tsvangirai started off with How WikiLeaks Just Set Back Democracy in Zimbabwe by Christopher R. Albon in the American analysis and commentary magazine The Atlantic. Albon takes issue not with Tsvangirai's seeming to speak out of both sides of his mouth, saying different things with each one, but with Wikileaks' Julian Assenge for making public the cables in which this became apparent.

Albon sees the prospect of treason charges against Tsvangirai as "major setback for democracy in Zimbabwe. Even if Tsvangirai is not charged with treason, the opponents to democratic reforms have won a significant victory. First, popular support for Tsvangirai and the MDC will suffer due to Mugabe's inevitable smear campaign, including the attorney general's "investigation." Second, the Prime Minister might be forced to take positions in opposition to the international community to avoid accusation of being a foreign collaborator. Third, Zimbabwe's fragile coalition government could collapse completely. Whatever happens, democratic reforms in Zimbabwe are far less likely now than before the leak. "

Albon puts the blame for Tsvangirai's latest troubles not on his own words and actions, but on the fact that Wikileaks revealed them!

 No less an American media institution than The Wall Street Journal then weighed in with its own sympathy for Tsvangirai in WikiLeaks' Collateral Damage by James Kirchick. The subheading of the opinion piece is 
Julian Assange's reckless behavior could cost Zimbabwe's leading democrat his life. Like Albon Kirchick is more troubled at the revelation of Tsvangirai's double-dealing that he is at the act of him doing it. 

Says Kirchick, "...Mr. Assange, who lacks any appreciation for the subtleties of international statecraft, many of which are not at all devious. If Mr. Assange were genuinely committed to democracy, as he claims, he would reveal the minutes of Mr. Mugabe's war cabinet, or the private musings of the Chinese Politburo that has sustained the Zimbabwean dictator for over three decades."

The UK Guardian weighed in on behalf of Tsvangirai with US cable leaks' collateral damage in Zimbabwe by James Richardson.

Writes Richardson, "...with the recent release of sensitive diplomatic cables, WikiLeaks may have committed its own collateral murder, upending the precarious balance of power in a fragile African state and signing the death warrant of its pro-western premier."

Like the other articles, the blame/focus is on Wikileaks for revealing what Tsvangirai said in private that contradicted what he said in public, than on Tsvangirai for the contradiction, which is swept away by all three writers as the price to be paid by a brave western-friendly politician trying to unseat the western-detested Mugabe.

The reports of a treason investigation is no doubt partly a political gambit to intimidate Tsvangirai. But the issue of whether the sanctions have in reality affected the whole economy in many ways is a legitimate one,and one that is hotly debated in Zimbabwe. Many of Mugabe's opponents would agree with him that whatever the initial intention, Zimbabwe as a whole has suffered damage from the official pariah status of the 'targeted sanctions' that goes much further and deeper than the effects on the wealthy, privileged elite on the list.

For Zimbabweans who believe that the question of whether Tsvangirai is working with foreign powers against the best interests of his fellow citizens is not at all a trivial one. For these people,  even if the treason investigation is 'political,' that would not be to say his standing has not suffered at home because of his own duplicity. Tsvangirai-supporting and Mugabe-hating western writers may have no trouble justifying this duplicity,but this might look very different to an ordinary Zimbabwean struggling under a recovering but still difficult, constrained economy. 

The MDC has claimed that their entry into an uncomfortable coalition with ZANU-PF has contributed a lot to economic normalization in the last two years. It is hard for the MDC to sustain the argument that 'our mere presence in the government has been beneficial for you the citizens' to those citizens who see the sanctions as widespread and general, rather than specific and targeted, when it has been shown that the 'benefactor' is also secretly urging foreign governments to keep the screws on the country.     

The state media in Zimbabwe has predictably been scathing of a Tsvangirai they have long loved to ridicule and demonize. The three western writers of the articles cited are quite right to fear that the Wikileaks revelations so far have been used as an unexpected, welcome propaganda gift against a Tsvangirai they have long characterized as a lackey of western neocolonialism upset at Mugabe's policies, especially expropriating land from white farmers. 

But what about the private Zimbabwean media? How have they reacted to the Wiki-revelations of Tsvangirai's speaking with a forked tongue on sanctions? 

Surprisingly there has been little comment beyond just reporting the details of the Wikileaks cables about Tsvangirai. Much fewer of the private media outlets have featured the prominent opinion pieces in western media sympathetic to Tsvangirai, but this could simply be because these articles have mostly appeared in the last week during the end-of-year holidays.

However, what is notable is that there has been no spirited defense from any Zimbabwean political or ideological camp of Tsvangirai's act of double-talking on sanctions as has appeared in the western media. If anything the silence so far seems deafening.This cannot be good news for Tsvangirai.

The Zimbabwe Independent, a fiercely Mugabe-critical weekly based in Zimbabwe, in a 30 December editorial comment titled Tomana barking up the wrong tree said, "...Tomana, who has been a willing tool in past frivolous cases, has seen a chance to frustrate a possible campaign by Tsvangirai and other MDC members if elections are held next year.

It is the selective nature of the probe which is worrying. The cables raise serious allegations of diamonds plunder by the elite in government, but Tomana, one could be forgiven for concluding, is not interested in instituting an enquiry into that matter. Plunder of diamonds has serious ramifications for our economy and is a matter Tomana should have prioritised rather than a cable based on an ambassador’s personal opinion after meeting Tsvangirai. Is it not Tsvangirai’s constitutional right to express his views privately on the state of affairs in the country?             
The comment goes on to point out how selective and partisan Tomana's 'investigations' and prosecutions are, but it makes no attempt to defend Tsvangirai for the actions that  have handed his opponents in the coalition government an opportunity to create legal trouble for him. The Independent's rhetorical question about Tsvangirai's right to privately express his views on things in the country has an obvious answer, but does not the address the central issue of what it means when a prime minister says one thing privately to agents of a foreign country, and the exact opposite to his fellow citizens and the rest of the world publicly.

In an election Zimbabweans are likely to put many other issues far higher in perceived immediate and practical importance in deciding how to vote. Unless there are far more damaging Wiki-revelations to come for Tsvangirai, this current episode may prove to be a storm in a teacup.

But if the coolness of the Zimbabwean diasporan and in-country private media to Tsvangirai's latest embarrassment is anything to go by, he too often gets involved in situations requiring awkward explanations. What this does is to lose him sections of Zimbabwean support he should otherwise have expected to have fully and enthusiastically sewn up. It is telling in an uncomfortable way that in the latest gaffe he has been found in, his most enthusiastic and vocal excusers have been Americans and Britons rather than Zimbabweans! That goes to the very heart of why despite his operating in a very uneven playing field against a ruthless opponent, Tsvangirai himself has frequently also shot himself in the foot many times, making many of his fellow citizens very uncomfortable that it is a person of his caliber who is currently the leading opponent to the formidable Mugabe.              

For many westerners it is enough that Tsvangirai is anti-Mugabe and 'pro-western.' For Zimbabweans, even the many and likely majority who believe there are far more reasons for Mugabe to go than for him to stay, the question of whether Tsvangirai is a patriot or a weak tool of foreign powers is not at all irrelevant. Over and over Tsvangirai has scored own goals in this regard, making some of the mud conveniently, predictably thrown at him by Mugabe & Co easily stick.

Even if the perception problems that this entrenches and deepens for Tsvangirai do not prevent him from being president one day, they could very well dog and affect the quality and even the longevity of his tenure in a country that won its independence after a bloody war and where the importance of the concepts of sovereignty and patriotism are not just slogans hurled at political rallies. By his own carelessness Tsvangirai forces many Zimbabweans, even those who are desperately ready for political change, to uneasily ask whether 'change' with him at its head is really what Zimbabwe needs, and whether he really may be under the influence of foreign powers with agendas apart from the well-being of Zimbabweans.     


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