Ousted Zambian government misled by its own media, just like Zim's present government

Oct 4, 2011

One of the most amazing things about the latest change of government in next door Zimbabwe is the new Michael Sata administration's relationship with the public media. That media stuck up for deposed Rupiah Banda's government tooth and nail, misleading it of the levels of its support, and now finds itself having to answer to people who until a couple of weeks ago it did not allow to get their message across. It is perhaps not surprising that Zimbabwe's state propaganda media is studiously avoiding the lessons to be learned.

Zimbabwe's deeply partisan, ZANU-PF propagandist state media is not quite sure how to react to Michael Sata's presidency in Zambia.

There were initial attempts to spin it as a win for a Robert Mugabe-similar 'nationalist' (Sata) against a Morgan Tsvangirai-like 'sellout' (Banda) whose party had hoodwinked the Zambian electorate into voting for them for 20 years. But this is an awkward, inaccurate and not inappropriate analogy.

In Zimbabwe Mugabe is 'nationalist' in terms of his hostility to the West. It is not convenient in the nationalist narrative to ask if his closeness and increasing dependence on China is not a negation of that 'nationalism.' But in Zambia 'nationalist' Sata is hostile to the Chinese for their business practices there, and friendly to the West Mugabe has a bone to pick with. But perhaps more than anything else, the Zimbabwean media tentatively, for now, considers Sata a good guy because of praise he has previously expressed for Mugabe, contrary to what was considered to be a mildly disapproving Banda.

Even with the coming in of the MDC/ZANU-PF coalition government in 2009, the state-owned media has continued to function pretty much as the propaganda appendage of ZANU-PF, rather than as a non-partisan media. This is is similar to the position in Zambia until Sata's recent win.

The two state-owned daily papers, The Times of Zambia and the Zambia Daily Mail, as well as the state owned radio and TV broadcaster were fully in the pockets of then president Rupiah Banda's MMD party.
After Sata's victory, a state media journalist was anonymously quoted as saying, "We work with the government of the day."

This may be true, but in Zambia as in Zimbabwe, the state media went far beyond just 'working with' the ruling government, to actively, often unprofessionally working against opponents of that government to extents that cannot be excused by the media being state-owned.

But there is the additional element of how the dominant state media's uncritical support of the Rupiah Banda government may have contributed to its demise. Part of the early post mortem on what went wrong for Banda and the MMD seems to be that they were simply out of touch with how the Zambian electorate viewed them. Voices within Banda's MMD that cautioned that they did not have as much support as they might have thought were drowned out and sometimes even demonized as working with the opposition.

A dominant state media that was free to report on things as they were would not have allowed a situation in which Banda and the MMD could be so deluded about the real sentiments of the electorate.

In Zimbabwe ZANU-PF is still dealing with the shock of the Wikileaks-revealed extent of that party's disaffection with their leader, Mugabe. Despite projecting a front of adoring Mugabe, leaked U.S. diplomatic cables showed that many of his closest aides expressed the feelings of many Zimbabweans; that it was long past time for Mugabe to go, for the good of everybody. That this came as such a shock is because of the closed, repressed societies that both ZANU-PF and the country of Zimbabwe are.

If there were fairly open discussion within ZANU-PF, and within the state-controlled media, the widespread disaffection would not have needed to be such a shock to Mugabe or anybody else. From the point of view of their own benefit, knowing it would have allowed Mugabe and ZANU-PF to possibly make corrections before being electorally humiliated like Banda and the MMD have just been in Zambia.

Another issue is how the MMD's control over the main levers of information did not save them from defeat. For decades the Mugabe government has dragged its feet on the liberalization of broadcasting, making Zimbabwe one of the relatively few African countries without private radio or TV stations. It has been assumed that in a country where many more people have access to radio than to newspapers, this was an insurmountable advantage ZANU-PF had over its opponents.

But Zambia has shown that even with the considerable propaganda advantage of controlling the broadcasting services as well as the main newspapers, change whose time has come cannot really be stopped. People obviously make judgments based on what they see and experience, rather than just on what propaganda they are fed. Furthermore, in the cellphone and internet age there are now many other ways for people to get alternative information, even if they do so indirectly. Media monopoly is just not quite as meaningful as it was ten or more years ago.

In Zimbabwe, as recently in Zambia, that media dominance, when poorly used, may be now as harmful to the incumbents as it was once considered indispensable for their continued hold on power, because of how it feeds their wrong ideas of public sentiment.

The Sata government has made noises about far-reaching reforms of the Zambian state media to make them more of a public, non-partisan and professional media. It will be interesting to see if they go ahead with those plans, or if the temptation to revert to the old dull media habits of governments like Banda's or Mugabe's will prove too strong.

The Zimbabwe Review


Post a Comment