By Henning Melber
PARTICIPANTS at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation seminar on “Promoting an independent and pluralistic African press”, held in Windhoek, Namibia, from Apr
il 29 to May 3 1991, declared: “Consistent with Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the establishment, maintenance and fostering of an independent, pluralistic and free press is essential to the development and maintenance of democracy in a nation and for economic development.”
This “Windhoek Declaration” marked a highlight in the so-called second wave (of democratisation) on the continent.
In February this year Information minister Jonathan Moyo visited the birthplace of this pioneering “Windhoek Declaration” to sign a cooperation agreement with his Namibian counterpart.
In an interview with the state-funded New Era newspaper, he urged both countries “doing justice to the kind of solidarity that was born during the liberation struggle. . . to cement these historic bonds and ties, and look at the new challenges that we are facing, as we in particular begin to consolidate the economic objectives of our liberation struggle, and identifying the critical role of information … accessible to these generations that may be prone to losing the bigger picture of the essential story”.
The minister had used different language before. As a scholar abroad he stated at a conference on Robben Island as late as February 1999:
“It would be a mistake to justify the struggles for national liberation purely on the basis of the need to remove the white minority regimes from power and to replace them with black majority regimes that did not respect or subscribe to fundamental principles of democracy and human rights … ruling personalities have hijacked the movement and are doing totally unacceptable things in the name of national liberation. Being here at Robben Island for the first time, I am immensely pained by the fact that some people who suffered here left this place only to turn their whole countries into Robben Islands.”
In March 2002, now in a ministerial rank, Moyo praised the results of the presidential election in his country as an impressive sign “that Zimbabweans have come of age that they do not believe in change from something to nothing. They do not believe in moving from independence and sovereignty to new colonialism, they do not believe in the discourse of human rights to deepen inequality.”
Such rhetoric has earned Moyo the label “Goebbels of Africa”. This is certainly too demagogic itself, given the historically unique dimensions of the holocaust to which the Nazi propaganda minister relates. But name-calling of this kind documents the degree of polarisation and level of dissent in Zimbabwean society today.
The current clampdown on independent media in Zimbabwe is neither exclusively nor decisively the result of a personal vendetta by a previously progressive scholar who has embarked on a reactionary rampage in defence and further consolidation of a totalitarian system. Moyo is just one – though due to his track record noteworthy – example of relatively high-profile calibre representatives of a post-colonial establishment seeking own gains by populist rhetoric covering up their selfish motives. They have become part and parcel of a set of deep-rooted anachronistic values within a system of anti-colonial movements in power.
After seizing legitimate political control over the state, these turned their liberation politics under the guise of pseudo-revolutionary slogans into oppressive tools. Their “talk left, act right” seeks to cover the true motive to consolidate the occupied political commanding heights of society against all odds at the expense of the public interest they claim to represent.
Sadly, the same Moyo at an early stage of the post-colonial realities in Zimbabwe offered courageous and sensible insights into the processes. As a lecturer in the Department of Political Studies of the University of Zimbabwe, he presented thought-provoking and painful reflections on the liberation war with all its ambiguity.
This is what he said in a paper in late 1992: “There can hardly be any doubt that the armed struggle in Zimbabwe was a pivotal means to the goal of defeating oppressive and intransigent elements of colonialism and racism. However, as it often is the case with protracted social processes of a conflict with two sides, the armed struggle in this country had a deep socio-psychological impact on its targets as well as on its perpetrators. …
“For the most part, the armed struggle in this country lacked a guiding moral ethic beyond the savagery of primitive war and was thus amenable to manipulation by the violence of unscrupulous nationalist politicians and military commanders who personalised the liberation war for their own selfish ends. … This resulted in a culture of fear driven by values of violence perpetrated in the name of nationalism and socialism.”
Nowadays, he represents the same mindset he questioned. According to a report by the Media Institute of Southern Africa he used a press conference in April this year in Bulawayo to warn “there was enough space in Zimbabwe’s prisons for journalists caught dealing with foreign media houses”.
As “terrorists of the pen” they would be targeted next: “The enemy is media who use the pen to lie about this country. Such reporters are terrorists and the position on how to deal with terrorists is to subject them to the laws of Zimbabwe.”
As the mere distribution of and access to information can be damaging to the security interest of those represented by the minister, the onslaught now includes again private Internet service providers, after earlier efforts were turned down by a ruling of the Supreme Court.
The state-owned telephone company announced in June that ISPs had to enter contracts stipulating that they prevent or report to the authorities anti-national activities and malicious correspondence via their telephone lines. Failing to do so they will be liable, ie penalised.
This latest attempt of censorship follows earlier appalling interferences resulting in the closure of newspapers and the imprisonment or expulsion of journalists. The government and its executive branches are eager to emphasise that this repression is in compliance with the existing (and for such purposes enacted) laws and hence fully within “legality” (which, of course, is a far cry from legitimacy). This simply shows that the “rule of law” can apply in the absence of any justice.
It is the strategy of the ban that constitutes such rule of law. It does not even spare government-friendly media productions and displays the intolerant, all-controlling nature of the system. One prominent example is the banning of the live broadcasted television production “Talk to the Nation” in mid-2001, which was sponsored by the National Development Association (NDA).
The explanatory statement by an official of the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation is a remarkable example of the “innocence” of a totalitarian mindset: “Live productions can be tricky and dangerous. The setting of the NDA productions was professionally done but maybe the production should not have been broadcast live. You do not know what someone will come and say and there is no way of controlling it.”
Media operating independently or beyond direct control of government are increasingly under pressure or even closed down, as the prominent example of the Daily News shows. On an alleged breach of a legal clause under the notorious Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa), the Media and Information Commission in June also closed The Tribune for at least one year.
The Tribune publisher, a Zanu PF MP, was reportedly suspended earlier on by the ruling party for “disrespecting” Zanu PF top structures as he had denounced Aippa in his maiden address to parliament.
It therefore does not come as a surprise that the latest annual overview on the state of media freedom in the southern Africa region by Misa – issued on World Press Freedom Day (April 26) — records more than half of all 188 media freedom and freedom of expression violations in 2003 among 10 monitored countries in Zimbabwe alone.
International agencies committed to the freedom of press and the professional ethics of journalism are in agreement that the situation in Zimbabwe is intolerable. It prompted the annual general assembly of the International Press Institute on May 18 in Warsaw to adopt the unanimous decision “to retain Zimbabwe’s name on the ‘watchlist’ of nations that are seriously eroding media freedom”.
And the board of the World Association of Newspapers condemned at its 57th World Newspaper Congress in Istanbul early last month the “attempts to silence independent media”. At a meeting in Windhoek during early June a total of 24 newspaper editors from eight countries in southern Africa, the Southern Africa Editors’ Forum, suspended its Zimbabwean wing.
The narrowing down of the post-colonial discourse to a mystification of the liberation movement in power as the exclusive home to national identity and belonging finds a corresponding expression in the increased monopolisation of the public sphere and expressed opinion.
Amanda Hammer and Brian Raftopoulos, co-editors of a recent volume on Zimbabwe’s Unfinished Business, summarised this in their introduction as “efforts to control or destroy the independent media and to silence all alternative versions of history and the present, whether expressed in schools, in churches, on sports fields, in food and fuel queues, at trade union or ratepayers’ meetings, in opposition party offices or at foreign embassies”.
Such desperate initiatives to enhance control signal at the same time a lack of true support among the population, who otherwise could be allowed to speak out freely. The repression of public opinion beyond the official government propaganda is therefore an indication of the ruthless last fight for survival of a regime which has lost its original credibility and legitimacy to an extent that it has to be afraid of allowing a basic and fundamental principle of human rights – the freedom of expression.
* Dr Henning Melber is research director at the Nordic/Africa Institute in Uppsala, Sweden. This is a shortened introduction to “Media, Public Discourse and Political Contestation in Zimbabwe”, to be published as “Current African Issues” (No 27) by the Nordic/Africa Institute in August. The publication can then be accessed and downloaded from the Institute’s website (www.nai.uu.se).