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Monday May 10th – Sunday May 16th
Weekly Media Update 2004-19
1. RIGHTS ABUSES
2. LUPANE BY-ELECTIONS
3. FOOD SECURITY ISSUES
News of the ill-treatment of Iraqi prisoners by members of the US army at Abu Ghraib jail in Baghdad presented the government media with a platform to dismiss legitimate condemnation of Zimbabwe’s human rights record by the West as hypocritical.
For example, ZTV and Power FM (10/5, 8pm) claimed the revelations demonstrated that America and Britain were “far from being the champions of democracy and human rights” and were “gross human rights violators” who have no “right to lecture other countries about human rights”.
ZTV’s Face the Nation programme (13/5, 9.30pm) then featured the government’s Media and Information Commission chairman, Tafataona Mahoso, to defend ZBC’s slanted coverage of the issue.
But instead of a rational analysis of human rights abuses, Mahoso claimed that Britain was condemning Zimbabwe’s human rights record because it had become “the apartheid State” after the collapse of apartheid South Africa.
Said Mahoso: “… Apartheid has gone back to where it came from. Britain now has to intervene directly in the affairs of Zimbabwe because apartheid is no longer there in South Africa to always wield its threats over the heads of Zimbabwe… So Britain is the power that now feels it must protect not only white racist interests but even cooperate with all those who benefited from apartheid…”
Four viewers called in during the programme and praised Mahoso for his “incisive” analysis of the issue. Only one viewer was critical saying, “Zimbabwean prisons were worse off”. He was however abruptly cut off air.
The government media have consistently ignored vocal domestic criticism of the government’s human rights abuses.
The Editor’s Memo column in the Zimbabwe Independent (14/5) provided some credible analysis of the government media’s preoccupation with human rights abuses in Iraq.
The column pointed out that while the government media were “voyeuristically fascinated” by the abuse of Iraqi prisoners, they have remained silent on widespread human rights violations in Zimbabwe.
It noted that the government media was trying to “fudge what is happening in Iraq” in an attempt to “mask the difference between sadistic abuse of prisoners of war by soldiers on the one hand, and human rights violations by government on the other”.
However, the author’s argument was undermined by his apparent attempt justify the ill-treatment of Iraqis saying, “American and British soldiers are fighting a deadly war, they are not human rights campaigners…what does constitute human rights abuses is the role and attitude of the political authorities”.
While the government media capitalized on America and Britain’s human rights abuses, Studio 7 and Short Wave Radio Africa carried about 13 fresh reports on continuing rights violations by government officials and security force personnel during the week.
Some of the reports also appeared in the private Press, particularly the violent dispersal by the police of NCA demonstrations in several cities during the week and a civic society meeting in Gweru at the weekend. The government media all but ignored these events.
2. LUPANE BY-ELECTION
The media, especially those from the government-controlled stable, failed once more to encourage transparency in the conduct of local elections as illustrated by their inability to demand unconditional accountability in the way the authorities prepared for and held the just ended Lupane by-election.
As a result, this compromised the fairness and quality of the news the electorate received, and indeed, the atmosphere under which the poll was held.
For example, all 11 stories the national broadcaster carried on the electoral process were handouts from the Electoral Supervisory Commission (ESC) and merely echoed the commission’s sentiments on the poll without question.
Consequently, a thorough examination of the electoral process was ignored. The government media merely gave information on the number of registered voters, election monitors and the location and the total number of polling stations.
Even then, this crucial information was only made available to the electorate on the eve of the election.
The private media did not fare any better in the 13 reports they carried on the elections. These media largely quoted the MDC accusing ZANU PF of intimidating the electorate without corroborating the veracity of the claims.
Neither did they cover the election manifestos of the candidates for the electorate to make informed choices.
Typically, the government-controlled Press carried nine articles campaigning for ZANU PF’s candidate while ignoring the campaign activities of the opposition MDC and its candidate. In fact, the opposition and its candidate were either denigrated or blamed for causing violence in Lupane in the four articles in which they were mentioned.
ZBC followed a similar trend in the eight stories it dedicated to ZANU PF’s campaign activities. Only Studio 7 aired the activities of the MDC candidate on two occasions but featured none on the ZANU PF candidate.
But while reports in the government media were saturated by either the ESC’s one-sided assessments of the poll as generally free and fair or partisan reports on ZANU PF’s campaign trails, only the private media queried the environment in which the by-election was being held by raising concerns of alleged violence and intimidation against the MDC by ruling party supporters.
For example SW Radio Africa, which alone carried six stories on the matter, quoted several MDC officials complaining about various electoral irregularities during the poll.
MDC Secretary-General Welshman Ncube told the private radio station (10/5) that the level of intimidation in Lupane was “very high” and that local villagers had been threatened with “the return of the Gukurahundi should they not vote for ZANU-PF”. MDC spokesperson Paul Themba Nyathi (SW Radio Africa (14/5) echoed Ncube’s claims, adding that traditional leaders were also involved in the harassment of opposition supporters.
Studio 7 (15/5) cited three incidents where chiefs were said to have been moving around polling stations wearing ZANU-PF regalia and mobilizing people to vote.
The government media suffocated this apparent abuse of traditional chiefs by ZANU PF to win elections for them. For example, the Chronicle (13/5) merely reported Local Government Minister Ignatius Chombo telling 600 Lupane “traditional leaders… that the government was committed to improving their welfare” during a campaign rally.
In fact, the Zimbabwe Independent (14/5) revealed that government had set aside an “unbudgeted $27,5 billion on chiefs’ vehicles and other perks”. The paper viewed this as a “move calculated to win their support ahead of parliamentary elections currently scheduled for March.”
However, the Council of Chiefs secretary-general Fortune Charumbira defended the move saying the scheme was similar to that for parliamentarians where government provided them with loans to buy vehicles.
The Chronicle (13/5) reported without question that chiefs from Silobela and Lower Gweru had “pledged to ensure that ZANU PF regains the two parliamentary seats in their areas it lost in 2000 after they were given a prominent role in the selection of candidates”.
The government media were clearly unwilling to examine these unorthodox electoral campaign tactics and largely ignored the ruling party’s intimidation of the Lupane electorate.
And where they were obliged to admit to outbreaks of violence in the constituency, they vaguely referred to them as “clashes”, (Radio Zimbabwe 13/5, 1pm) or “skirmishes” (Power FM 11/5, 8pm) to obscure the identity of the perpetrators and soften the ugly impact on the conduct of the poll.
Only where the MDC was accused of being responsible for the violence were these media specific (Power FM, 11/5, 8pm, 12/5, 1pm; the Chronicle, 12/5; and Radio Zimbabwe, 14/5, 1pm). No due care was made to balance or corroborate these accusations with independent sources.
For example, the Chronicle (12/5) reported that a ZANU PF supporter was “suddenly attacked” and allegedly axed by MDC’s “weapon wielding activists” while putting up campaign posters for the ruling party’s candidate. The paper claimed that the campaign had been “peaceful until (the) incident”.
But contrary to this report by the Chronicle (and Radio Zimbabwe), The Tribune (14/5) quoted the MDC district information secretary David Nyathi giving more context to the circumstances leading to the violence.
He claimed MDC supporters had retaliated after ZANU PF supporters had attacked them while they were putting up their own campaign posters. Nyathi said the police had only arrested MDC activists, including the party’s polling agents. He said: “There is no justice for us. We cannot complain to the police because ZANU PF supporters will never be arrested.”
Nyathi’s account found corroboration from reports in The Zimbabwe Independent and The Daily Mirror (13/5).
SW Radio Africa (13/5) reported a Lupane magistrate discharging 11 of the arrested MDC activists for lack of evidence.
The Standard (16/5) reported that the police had arrested two other MDC activists who claimed they had been kidnapped and tortured by war veterans but who the police accused of perpetrating violence against ZANU PF supporters.
The two were allegedly arrested when they went to report their ordeal to the police. However, no comment was sought from the police.
3. FOOD SECURITY ISSUES
Government’s decision to stop a joint crop assessment team from two international food relief agencies seeking to establish Zimbabwe’s food needs, captured the imagination of the media in the week under review.
The Harare authorities stopped the team from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) from completing its work on the grounds that Zimbabwe no longer needed food handouts because the country was expecting a “bumper harvest”.
The move, reminiscent of the misleading declaration by Agriculture Minister Joseph Made in May 2001 (The Herald) that Zimbabweans would have adequate food during that year, seemed to replay itself this year with the same minister again predicting a surplus food output amid independent forecasts to the contrary.
Radio Zimbabwe (11/5, 12/5, 6pm & 8pm) and The Herald (12/5) quoted Made saying results from the “final crop assessment” for the 2003/2004 season showed that more than 2,4 million tonnes of maize would be produced this season. He added that if the total tonnage of sorghum and millet were to be included, the country would have more than 2,8 million tonnes of cereal, a figure he said, that surpassed the country’s requirement of between 1,5 million and 2 million tonnes.
While Made reportedly arrived at his 2001 harvest predictions on the basis of an aerial view from a helicopter, the methods used to assess this year’s crop were not disclosed. Neither would the government media challenge him to explain how and when government conducted the evaluation.
On the contrary, they quoted Social Welfare Minister Paul Mangwana simply saying the country will “not require food imports or food aid”.
Again, these media did not quote alternative food experts or carry independent investigation to verify the claims.
However, the private media wondered at the timing of the mysterious development, especially as it came amid unprecedented economic turmoil less than a year before the country’s next parliamentary election.
The varied opinion accessed by these media either interpreted the government move as designed to spruce up the image of its controversial agrarian reforms or a calculated move to cause State-induced hunger among the citizenry, which it would capitalize on in the 2005 parliamentary poll to buy votes from a famished electorate.
In fact, despite the authorities’ claims that the UN food assessment team had been sent home on the basis of a projected harvest surplus, SW Radio Africa (10/5) revealed that Made had admonished the group “a few days into the mission” for being in the country “without his approval”.
The radio station claimed this was in spite of the fact that “a government newspaper has seen a letter from Made’s ministry dated 30 March, 2004, inviting UNWFP officials to come and estimate the country’s food aid needs”.
The report quoted journalist Andrew Meldrum attributing the reasons for the expulsion of the UN team to government’s fears that independent observations of the real crop situation in the country were likely to discredit government’s assertions that its land reforms had boosted productivity.
Meldrum reported public fears that the government intended to deliberately starve people with the aim of using the maize in its custody as a “political weapon” in the forthcoming election.
Studio 7 (14/5) supported this sentiment when it cited Amnesty International raising the same suspicions. It noted that government had “manipulated” food aid “over the past couple of years”, with little regard to people’s “fundamental right to food, upon which all other rights are dependent”.
So did The Zimbabwe Independent (13/5). It observed that government’s inflated crop yield projections to justify its decision to turn down food aid would leave the electorate “at the mercy of the ruling party, which in the past has demonstrated a penchant for using food as the carrot in its often vicious campaign strategy”.
But the government media censored the government’s banishment of the UN crop assessment group from the country, choosing instead to celebrate Made’s projections in their reports saying the development demonstrated the success of the land reform programme.
For instance, in its comment, Bumper harvest shames detractors, The Herald (14/5) observed that the projected yields had shown that previous food shortages were not due to land reforms but “four consecutive droughts” which “coincided with the massive exercise to redistribute land”.
Similarly, ZBC used government’s unverified predictions of plentiful food as a tool to “shame” Zimbabwe’s “detractors” over what they thought government’s agrarian reforms “will never achieve”, ZTV (12/5, 6pm and 8pm).
Amid this euphoria, Studio 7 (13/5) reminded its listeners that last year government had made similar claims of projected good harvests only for it to make a surprising U-turn later and approach the UN for aid.
The station (12/5) also quoted Harare-based independent agro-economist Roger Mupande watering down government’s bumper harvest predictions as “surprising” since the current season had been impacted negatively by late rain, under-utilization of resettled farms and shortages of equipment and inputs.
Mupande noted that the projections would have been more authentic “if other agencies like FAO and WFP were allowed to assess the crop situation”, the results of which would then be fed into the SADC Early Warning Food Systems.
SW Radio Africa (11/5), Studio 7 (13/5), The Zimbabwe Independent and The Sunday Mirror (16/5) also cited other farming experts, as revising government’s maize output forecasts for the year from the estimated 2.4 million tonnes to between 600 000 and 900,000 tonnes.
The Independent quoted the UN as describing the projected harvest as an “impossibly big figure” and a “complete nonsense”.
Meanwhile, SW Radio Africa (12/5), revealed that government was working on a tobacco-for-maize deal with an unnamed American bank, to ship maize over to Zimbabwe, package it in GMB sacks and then claim it as local produce.
Likewise, Studio 7 (13/5) and the Independent reported that government was clandestinely importing maize from Zambia and storing it in Mashonaland West GMB silos.
However, Studio 7 also quoted Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union’s Silas Hungwe denying the allegations saying, “the government has never imported maize from Zambia”.
The MEDIA UPDATE was produced and circulated by the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe, 15 Duthie Avenue, Alexandra Park, Harare, Tel/fax: 263 4 703702, E-mail: email@example.com
Feel free to write to MMPZ. We may not able to respond to everything but we will look at each message. For previous MMPZ reports, and more information about the Project, please visit our website at http://www.mmpz.org.zw