Friday, July 11, 2008

(HERALD) Western media’s lies exposed

Western media’s lies exposed
By Peter Mavhunga

IN this London Letter you will find that I take my hat off twice. First, I salute the Sunday Times for admitting that it got it all wrong when it accused what it described as Zanu-PF militia of hurling an eleven-month-old baby onto a concrete floor in an imagined scene of violence that has typified British Press reports on Zimbabwe.

Some sections of the British Press would rather I shut up and instead become a consumer of their propaganda. Indeed some newspapers here will not tolerate an alternative view to theirs which they present as the gospel truth.

So it was refreshing to find that the Sunday Times this week admitted it was fallible and that there was no evidence to support its allegation against Zanu-PF the previous week.

This is what happened.

On Sunday 30 June, the Sunday Times carried a traumatising story about Zanu-PF cruelty against the opposition. On the front page was a picture of a distressed 11-month-old baby, Blessing Mabhena with the legend, "A tiny victim of a terrible nightmare" above it.

Below the picture was the caption: "Blessing Mabhena had both of his legs broken by Zanu-PF supporters searching for his father."

The title of the story, by Christina Lamb, was: "Mugabe’s thugs shout: ‘Lets kill the baby’."

The report began: "A baby boy had both legs broken by supporters of President Robert Mugabe to punish his father for being an opposition councillor in Zimbabwe."

It went on: "Blessing Mabhena, aged 11 months, was seized from a bed and flung down with force as his mother Agnes, hid from the thugs, convinced that they were about to murder her."

In another, more detailed report on page 27, the paper declared: "Even Zimbabwe’s babies are targets. From infants to the frail elderly, no one is safe as Zanu-PF killers hunt down the opposition."

This report, apparently by a freelance journalist, Douglas Merle in Harare, was even more dramatic. "There was a tremendous hammering on the door of her home," it began.

"Realising that President Mugabe’s thugs were hunting for her, Agnes

Mabhena, the wife of an opposition councillor, quickly hid under the bed. It was too late for her to grab Blessing, her 11-month old baby, who was crying on top of it.

"‘She’s gone out. Let’s kill the baby,’ she heard a member of the gang say. The next thing she saw from under the bed was Blessing’s tiny body hitting the concrete floor with a force that shattered his tiny legs.

"‘It is just a baby — leave it alone,’ another said, and the thugs left. All day Mabhena stayed at home with her screaming son, too terrified to move.

"Her neighbours, knowing that the family were regarded as opponents of Mugabe, were too frightened to help."

The Sunday Times report went on: "Now encased in plaster, his little legs stick out at an odd angle below his blue romper suit. Unless he has orthopaedic help soon, he may never walk."

This is the sort of report on Zimbabwe the British public is subjected to frequently here. It is quite standard. Journalists appear too ready to accept what they are told. There is a lack of journalistic curiosity; no-one will bother delve deeper.

After all, if what is said helps to nail the regime, it must be right.

So reports, even in "serious" papers like the Sunday Times, have tended to be emotional rather than factual.

At the same time there is a willing readership. The public has been made to believe everything bad said about Zimbabwe and its "regime" must be right.

This ready acceptance of a one-sided story has led to an abuse of the system. People can lie point blank because they have been led into believing that "the regime" knows no limits to its level of cruelty and badness.

In this case this was a story being given by one side of the political divide in Zimbabwe. One side was making serious allegations against the other and even a journalist who has just heard the word "objectivity" or "balance" for the first time would say OK but I have to verify this.

Failure to do so leads to a sensational report which fuels people’s anger against one of the parties — for the wrong reason.

Indeed, anybody seeing the picture on the front page of the paper on June 30 would not fail to be moved by it.

Not unexpectedly, there was an outpouring of emotion towards the little victim of this unspeakable cruelty allegedly perpetrated by Zanu-PF.

Somehow, this is how the whole story began to unravel. The story prompted readers to offer money for medical treatment for little Blessing.

According to the Sunday Times published on 6 July 2008, "Doubts about the mother’s account arose when our reporter tried to arrange an operation. An orthopaedic surgeon said an X-ray of the child’s legs showed no sign of fractures.

"Doctors in Harare and London said he had club feet." The paper went on to say: "The mother, whose husband is an opposition councillor, repeatedly insisted that the child had been maimed when he was picked up from a bed and hurled to the floor.

"Her story, which was first reported in The New York Times, was reiterated last week by Newsweek, the US magazine. While there is no suggestion that the mother’s account of an attack is false, doctors have yet to find any evidence to support her claims that her son was injured…Further X-rays are due tomorrow."

Unless evidence could be found to suggest the child had been injured, the suggestion that the so-called Zanu-PF militia were there suddenly becomes just hot air.

Hot air that should have been checked and re-examined before being spread across the globe by institutions that seem to have lost all sense of decent reporting!

The Sunday Times blames this failure to check allegations on President Mugabe "who has virtually banned foreign journalists from Zimbabwe. As a result, most have had to report clandestinely on last month’s violent elections. The price of being caught is prison", says the report.

My information is that the Government of Zimbabwe has not virtually banned foreign journalists from the country.

It is the BBC who have been banned. Any other journalists can work in Zimbabwe, subject to registration with the relevant authorities.

The Sunday Times makes an interesting comment on the difficulties of checking information.

It says in this instance, "A photographer took a poignant picture of the baby with his legs in plaster, sticking out at odd angles, as he sheltered in a church hall with others displaced by the violence.

"Aware that other children have been hurt in attacks on the opposition, a freelance reporter who provided the story took the mother at her word. Part of this reporter’s article was then inserted into a front-page story by Christina Lamb without her knowledge.

"Our inquiries in the past few days suggest we were wrong to report that the baby’s legs had been broken in an assault. For that, we unreservedly apologise."

This is an apology for wrongly accusing Zanu-PF for a terrible crime it did not commit.

Some aspects of this story illustrate that there are insidious forces working hard out there to demonise the Zimbabwe Government.

For if it was not the case, how is it that a false report about an alleged Zanu-PF atrocity manages to be sneaked without the reporter’s knowledge onto the front page of the Sunday Times with the report and photo fitting in nicely to the other story?

Even if I was born yesterday, I still would not believe it. And because I was not born yesterday, I find the report offensive to say the least.

Some of my friends do not read newspapers or listen to the news on TV because of what they perceive as its inherent bias.

They are particularly angry that objectivity, truth and facts are no longer the lifeblood of British journalism when it comes to reporting Zimbabwe.

It is disappointing, though in this instance I still take my hat off to the Sunday Times for its admission. Many others might not have done so. I am saddened though that little Blessing has had to be at the centre of this bizarre story.

Turning now to the question of how Zimbabwe moves forward from here, it is pleasing to note that there is some re-allignment of Zimbabwe politics taking place. The process may be slow but it certainly is happening. My purpose as an analyst is to identify that process and perhaps encourage it.

And nothing symbolises that re-alignment more than the recent statement by Mr Gabriel Chaibva and I take my hat off again as a mark of respect.

Zimbabwe is crying out for men and women who put national interest before narrow party considerations. The country is looking for leaders with vision to take the country forward in the interest of the population. National interest ought to be seen in the context of the country, its history and the direction it wants to travel.

Mr Chaibva’s statement and his general posture tells me we have in him a man who meet these criteria. He is a man of courage and vision. He wants dialogue and he maps out the conditions for fruitful dialogue.

But: "Unless Arthur Mutambara and Morgan Tsvangirai are prepared to approach President Mugabe, shake his hand and say ‘Mr President’, we will not move forward and there can be no talks."

His sense of history is impressive too. He regretted the opposition parties’ failure to recognise the President in 2002 and asks pointedly: "Where did that get us?"

He goes on to say: "Who would have thought that in 1980 people like Ken Flower (head of CIO under Ian Smith) and General Peter Walls would be incorporated in the administration?"

He deplored and castigated the divisive "foreign influence" in the politics of Zimbabwe. According to him, such foreign influence created disunity within the ranks of the opposition.

He was clearly in favour of land redistribution at the time of the split. "We were nationalist and Pan African," he said.

What African worth the name would be against that? "But the providers of capital see this as a threat to their permanent economic interests in Zimbabwe," he said. "That is why just before the elections the two MDCs failed to unite."

I disagree with a description of Mr Chaibva as being repentant as I read somewhere the other day.

Here is a man of vision who can learn from past mistakes in the interest of the nation. He lampoons those who listened to the Americans and the Germans who produced a report telling Mr Tsvangirai that he would win 85 percent of the vote on March 29 and that he did not need the support of Mr Mutambara.

He deplored those in opposition parties who over-estimated themselves and underestimated Zanu-PF. On this, history is on Mr Chaibva’s side too.

At the Independence elections in 1980, those who over-estimated themselves and under-estimated Zanu-PF were embarrassed with the result.

One such person was Ken Flower who told the then Prime Minister, Bishop Muzorewa, that he did not need even to remove his slippers from State House because he was going to be returned there with a huge majority.

The rest is history.

A new consensus is emerging in Zimbabwe and Mr Chaibva is a good example of how this process is taking shape.

Dialogue based on the premise that the people of Zimbabwe alone can find solutions to their problems is the way forward.

President Mbeki of South Africa might mediate but the solution belongs to Zimbabweans, no-one else. Negotiations based on a new consensus have a far greater chance of success than those that are held in an atmosphere akin to having one of the players trying to play cricket with one hand tied behind his back. Or negotiations held with one party always waiting for instructions from the "international community"!

What kind of negotiations are those other than a cover for the British and the Americans to come and take over?

I favour Mr Chaibva’s approach of bringing a purely African agenda to the talks where my brothers and sisters from all shades of political opinion in Zimbabwe come together to find solutions to our lovely country’s problems. It can be done.

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