In Zimbabwe's political charade, state media plays a key role

Voters queue to vote at a polling station in Zimbabwe on Friday.
Voters queue to vote at a polling station in Zimbabwe on Friday. AP

HARARE, Zimbabwe — The bread lines were longer than the lines at polling stations on election day here, with apparently few people eager to vote in a blood-soaked race that only President Robert Mugabe was contesting.

But that's not what reporters for Zimbabwe's state-run media saw.

"Long and winding queues were the order of the day," intoned a bass-voiced radio announcer on Spot FM on Saturday morning, a day after a presidential runoff marred by a ruthless campaign of government-sponsored violence against Mugabe opponents.

In Washington, President Bush ordered sanctions and called for a U.N. arms embargo on Mugabe's regime, describing the election as "a sham ... that ignored the will of the people of Zimbabwe" and condemning Mugabe's "blatant disregard" for human rights.

It was a different story in the Herald, Zimbabwe's state-run daily newspaper, which said that huge voter turnout was "a slap in the face for detractors who claimed this was a 'Mugabe election' that did not have the blessing of the generality of Zimbabweans."

As Mugabe prepared to claim a landslide victory — extending his 28-year rule over a nation that has known no other leader since independence — state media continued to play a starring role in Zimbabwe's political theater of the absurd.

While international news organizations quoted voters who were force-marched by government militias to polling stations and threatened with violence if they didn't produce ink-stained fingers — proof they'd cast a ballot — a news anchor on Zimbabwe Television on Saturday described the election thusly: "It has been very peaceful. Everything has gone very well so far."

There's a distinctly through-the-looking-glass quality to the propaganda campaign, but Zimbabwe under Mugabe has become one of the most tightly controlled societies in the world. There is no independent broadcasting station and only a couple of weekly independent newspapers, which are rigorously monitored and forced to sell copies at a price several times higher than the official papers.

Earlier this month the government slapped a heavy import tax on foreign newspapers and magazines in a move to bar "hostile" publications. Web sites aren't censored, but Internet use isn't widespread.

In this virtual news vacuum, state-owned newspapers, radio and television serve as a mouthpiece for the regime, a catalog of government programs, the source for dubious official statistics on the decimated economy and — perhaps most reliably — a forum in which to bash Western countries, which Mugabe says are determined to re-colonize Zimbabawe.

It's the last category in which the media often appear to take the most pleasure — particularly the Herald, a drab English-language broadsheet that favors screaming front-page headlines such as, "Leave us alone, West told" (atop a story last week about a Mugabe campaign speech).

On election day, the Herald ran a story on Queen Elizabeth's decision to withdraw Mugabe's knighthood because of the election crisis. Quoting unidentified analysts, the paper wrote that the queen's decision "is actually a blessing in disguise as it removes one of the last vestiges of colonial titles on an African statesman and revolutionary."

In the days before Friday's vote, one television personality called Mugabe the "perfect presidential candidate for Zimbabwe" and another asked a government official whether backing opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was "the equivalent of selling your family into slavery."

Tsvangirai and his party, the Movement for Democratic Change, are portrayed as weak, divided and manipulated by the West. After Tsvangirai pulled out of the race — citing the murder of dozens of his supporters — the Herald's cartoonist drew him running from his own shadow and cowering in fear of a giant ballot box.