Grace Mugabe addressed a nagging media problem by default

President Mugabe's spokesman George Charamba

The recent shameful public dressing-down and humiliation by First Lady Amai Grace Mugabe of her husband’s spokesperson, George Charamba, was in essence manifestation of the detrimental interference by government and the ruling Zanu-PF party in the running of Zimbabwe’s sprawling public media empire.

By Geoffrey Nyarota

The centerpiece of this massive empire, Zimbabwe Newspapers (1984) (Pvt) Ltd, provides the Minister and the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services not only with immense power but also with a formidable weapon to use against those perceived to be political rivals.

Charamba is the powerful Press Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet. His position makes him the official spokesperson of President Robert Mugabe. More significantly, he is also the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Information with influence over Zimpapers, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and the national news agency, Ziana.

Charamba (54) was appointed to this position following the elections of 2000. He has since his appointment become the most Zanu-PF orientated of all the permanent secretaries in the Ministry of Information and openly boasts of his status as a party functionary. That was until that fateful day when he was denounced by First Lady Mugabe (52) in full view of thousands of Zanu-PF party youths, with the woeful episode being repeatedly broadcast on ZTV, for good measure.

The First Lady launched a fierce attack on Charamba, while accusing him of using the Zimpapers flagship, The Herald, as a platform for attacking Zanu PF officials such as Higher Education Minister, Prof Jonathan Moyo, and his bosom buddy, Minister Saviour Kasukuwere of Local Government.

“… If we are doing a lot of things with Kasukuwere and Jonathan Moyo, let them do their work,” Amai Mugabe said. “You even create corruption cases against them. They have no case to answer. We have been quiet for a long time. This must stop.

“Right now in The Herald there are some people that are being attacked but others are not being attacked. Stop it. I have tried to bring you close but you did not reciprocate … You cannot separate the president from his wife. That can’t happen. You must stand for the truth and write developmental stories. You know that we do a lot of good work in Mazowe and you are not concerned about that. You have no right to attack ministers, George …”

The most shocking aspect of Amai Mugabe’s onslaught on Charamba is her apparent belief that as Permanent Secretary of Information he is entitled to sit down to write news stories, developmental or otherwise, for publication in The Herald.

The source of this misconception was the Nathaniel Manheru column in The Herald, which Moyo created during his first term as Information Minister and Charamba perfected after he inherited it. There are many in and out of government who cannot distinguish between a news report based on facts about events and a newspaper column, which is an expression of personal opinion on topical issues. Incidentally, whether by coincidence or by design, Charamba’s column came to a sudden end a few weeks ahead of the demise of the man who has become the public face of state interference in the media, after usurping the power to appoint or dismiss editors and other journalists, as well as to determine the focus or the angle of editorial coverage.

But if the First Lady has her way, this will now all have to stop, as dictated by her in Chinhoyi on 29 July 2017.

Mai Mugabe’s public derision of Charamba was so severe there is speculation it could spell disaster for him as Presidential spokesman. It has become an open secret that the First Lady has presidential ambitions of her own. The Zanu-PF elective congress and the 2018 harmonized elections are around the corner amid much agitation within Zanu-PF’s powerful Women’s League, of which she is secretary, for a female vice President within the party.

Moyo and Charamba both arrived at the Ministry of Information in 2000, the year when Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC first challenged Zanu-PF as a viable opposition party. With the ruling party now under serious threat, the two men crafted and defended the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) and the Public Order and Security Act both of 2002.

Targeting the newly launched and privately owned Daily News mostly, they embarked on a repressive campaign against the press, which resulted in many journalists losing their jobs, while some left the profession and others left Zimbabwe altogether. Many were arrested on spurious charges or otherwise harassed.

When Moyo introduced the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill to Parliament, the then chairman of the Parliamentary Legal Committee, was the late Dr Eddison Zvobgo. He said of the proposed legislation, “I can say without equivocation that this Bill, in its original form, was the most calculated and determined assault on our liberties guaranteed by the Constitution in the 20 years I served as Cabinet Minister.”

Writing of Dr Nathan Shamuyarira, Independent Zimbabwe’s first Minister of Information and Justin Nyoka, initially director and then permanent secretary in the same ministry I state in my book, “Against the Grain, Memoirs of a Zimbabwean Newsmen” (Zebra Press, Cape Town 2006), that both men were experienced journalists with solid professional reputations.

“The ministry never had a more formidable and knowledgeable team in charge of its affairs.

“The rapid decline in press freedom in Zimbabwe started in earnest after their departure from Linquenda House and cascaded steadily downwards to almost total collapse two decades later under the mercurial Prof Moyo and his Permanent Secretary, George Charamba. For all their erudition and eloquence, the understanding of these two men of the media’s role and function in a democracy was somewhat skewered.”

Both Nyoka and Shamuyarira had seen years of active service as journalists, the former having been editor of The African Daily News in the 1960s while the latter was a news reporter on The Herald in the 1970s. Both men also had strong liberation credentials having been actively involved with Zanu-PF during the war of liberation. Yet neither of them exploited their qualifications and experience in the media to impose their personal will, perhaps with greater justification, on the media to the same extent that Moyo and Charamba did to stamp their footprints on Zimbabwe’s media landscape. Neither did Sarah Chavhunduka, who served between Nyoka and Charamba, in any way abuse her position, even though she sat on the board of directors of Zimbabwe Newspapers (1984) Ltd.

Not even PK van der Byl, Information Minister in charge of Ian Smith’s awesome propaganda machine stamped his personal authority in the manner of Moyo and Charamba before their own awesome alliance was rendered asunder, despite the bond of friendship that was reinforced by their alternating authorship of the controversial Nathaniel Manheru column in The Herald.

In 1981 the Mugabe government acquired the majority of shares in Zimbabwe Newspapers, the company that owned all major newspapers in the country. The government then established the Zimbabwe Mass Media Trust (ZMMT). The trust had responsibility over the Zimpapers group, Kingstons, the book-sellers, the Zimbabwe Information Services, as well as the national news agency, Ziana.

The ZMMT’s role, as stated by Shamuyarira was to promote, through an independent board of non-government individuals, the interests of ordinary Zimbabweans in the national media. Instead of owning and controlling the press, government had opted for the creation of a trust to handle the press on behalf of the citizens of Zimbabwe.

All that was to change at the turn of the Century. ZMMT had, in fact, thereafter been subjected to a pattern of relentless attempts by government to control and influence the press. But, on 7 December 2000, the weekly Standard newspaper reported that the ZMMT had effectively been dissolved.

The newspaper reported that the ZMMT board, which was chaired by prominent lawyer Honour Mkushi, had been disbanded. The decision to disband had been adopted after Mkushi reportedly held a meeting with the new Minister of Information and Publicity, Prof Moyo.

The demise of the ZMMT effectively became the catalyst in the ascendancy of Charamba and Moyo to unprecedented and unchallenged power in the State-owned media empire. While technically the ZMMT still owns the government’s newspapers, in reality the trust no longer exists.  Charamba and Moyo moved in to usurp its functions, initially as strategic allies but increasingly as avowed enemies.

It was an act of strategy, not coincidence, that Charamba’s comeuppance in Chinhoyi came at a time when Moyo has become a close ally of the First Lady in the war of attrition between Zanu-PF’s so-called G40 and Lacoste succession factions. Mai Mugabe’s own presidential ambitions have been deposited in the public domain. The temptation on her part to exploit Moyo’s influence on a media landscape, where he is known to have some editors in his pocket must be too tempting to resist.

Providently for Mai Mugabe, with Charamba effectively emasculated and with Moyo and Kasukuwere publicly exonerated by her at a rally, in a strange departure from normal practice, on allegations of corruption, Moyo could find himself playing powerful Lone Ranger back at the Ministry of Information.

That is unless his successor there plays his political cards well. But so far Dr Christopher Mushohwe appears to be content to focus mostly on the exigencies of taking the ministry into the new Digital Age.

The Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) appointed by Charamba and Moyo in 2014 to assess the status of the media in Zimbabwe, submitted its report to Moyo in February 2015. It contained a large number of findings and made a wide range of recommendations.

“Generally”, the report said, “editors across the spectrum, as well as civil society and some political parties believe that government should not be directly involved in the running of the media, except to create an enabling legislative framework based on the Constitution.

“It is recommended that government should leave the running of the public media in the hands of boards of directors with responsibility for selecting and assessing senior management and ensuring that they have the policy, vision and resources to do their work in a professional manner.”

Such recommendations would not have found favour with the Ministry of Information, in particular, or government, in general. With the arrival of a new minister, Mushohwe, Charamba relegated the IMPI Report to the status of an item on the agenda of a proposed but never materializing Media Indaba, despite the $2 million invested in the exercise.

(Geoffrey Nyarota is the former Editor of The Chronicle and The Financial Gazette, as well as founding Editor-in-Chief of The Daily News.).