Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Mugabe’s ZBC operated no differently from today’s Btv

Since the controversial 2008 elections in Zimbabwe, the Government Enclave in Gaborone has been trying to convince members of the public that the neighbour to the north is a despotic hellhole ÔÇô which indeed it was until (hopefully) a fortnight ago when Emmerson Mnangagwa, one of Robert Mugabe’s henchmen, took over. It is interesting though how, under Mugabe, the state media operated in a manner that is no different from how Botswana’s state media presently operates.

The army set the ball rolling with a press conference at which the Commander of the Zimbabwean Defence Forces, General Constantino Chiwenga, lamented the state of the economy and the purging of liberation struggle veterans from the government. Initially, the state newspaper, The Herald published a report on this press conference but took it down soon thereafter. The press conference got no coverage on the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation’s television or radio nor was it printed in The Herald the following morning.

What the media chose to give prominence was a statement from the Chairman of the ZANU-PF Youth League, Kudzanai Chipanga, who lambasted the military for being responsible for $15 billion that is missing from the state coffers. He vowed that the League would defend the revolution. ZANU-PF Secretary for Information Simon Khaya Moyo, also got ample airtime when he asserted “the primacy of politics over the gun.” Then the army started playing hardball and took over ZBC headquarters.

Following Mugabe’s ouster, government journalists are free for the first time ever to practise the journalism they learnt at university. However, decades of being programmed to do propaganda makes them reticent to embrace the new-found freedom.

ZBC was the PR wing of ZANU-PF in the same way that Botswana Television (Btv) is the PR wing of the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP). By any journalistic standard, the defection of a former Parliament Speaker and cabinet minister from the ruling to an opposition party is big news. However, the state media neither reported the defection of Margaret Nasha from the BDP to the Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) nor covered the political rally where she was welcomed into the ranks of the latter. When a BDP candidate in a bye-election wins, that is a lead item in the Btv news bulletin and a front-page story in the Botswana Daily News. On the other hand, if an opposition candidate wins, the latter will hide the story deep in the paper and there is no guarantee that Btv will cover it.

Tackled on the issue of this disparity in parliament, the Minister for Presidential Affairs, Governance and Public Administration, Eric Molale, under whom state media falls, made the incredulous claim that government doesn’t choreograph the journalism of its employees and that they are free to exercise editorial discretion. That latter statement was true to an extent ÔÇô government journalists can exercise discretion but such discretion is avidly policed by the power-that-be. Earlier this year, the Botswana Congress Party was welcomed into the opposition collective of the Umbrella for Democratic Change at a huge political rally at Rasesa. Btv staff members who exercised editorial discretion to cover this rally were immediately redeployed to less sensitive areas on orders from the Office of the President (OP). If nothing else, Btv is actually a propaganda delivery machine that is controlled not from Mass Media Complex (headquarters of state media) but OP.

The word “sensitive” has actually been used in court documents in the same context. In the matter at hand, a Btv producer, Joshua Ntopolelang, was redeployed from a highly sensitive news section in an election year (2014) because, as his affidavit states, management was unsure of his political allegiance. The court papers quote Mass Media director, Lesole Obonye, as telling Ntopolelang that senior government officials could not entrust him (Ntopolelang) with a politically sensitive position in an election year when they didn’t trust him.   

There is something unsettling about Zimbabwe’s past being Botswana’s present but that is the reality. Like Zimbabwe’s government journalists, those at Mass Media Complex may find that they have forgotten how to operate professionally in a future dispensation that allows them to do so. Then again, it is highly likely that whatever opposition party replaces the BDP in the future will expect them to continue doing state propaganda.

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