By Stephen Gowans
In political contests the objective of each side is to discredit the opposition, and when that can’t be done, to silence it. This is done to prevent the opposition from persuading others to take its point of view. If one side can persuade others to its position, it can count on their support and possibly gain an advantage over the other side.
While all sides seek to silence their opposition, or at least, to marginalize it, they often present themselves as being champions of free speech, prepared to jump into the rough and tumble of the free market of ideas, confident their ideas will, through their sheer force, prevail. If they seek to silence the other side, it’s not because they oppose free speech, but because they’re against “propaganda” and providing platforms to “monsters.” By contrast, their own propagandists are not to be understood as propagandists. Nor do they promote the views of monsters. Instead, they are neutral, objective and balanced.
Coverage of foreign affairs in the West is almost wholly dominated by news media that are controlled by the wealthy, operating to amplify the views of the Council on Foreign Relations and high state officials who are either wealthy themselves or owe their position to the patronage of the wealthy and will likely end up at the CFR when they leave their government positions. But for a few obscure publications, coverage of foreign affairs is dominated by the interests of the rich; that is, of investment bankers, corporate lawyers, the chairmen of corporations and members of hereditary capitalist families. Even those who write for obscure publications that profess to take an alternative view are usually so immersed in the received media wisdom that they either can’t escape it on all matters, or are afraid to escape it on some, for fear of being dismissed as extreme.
In countries that have taken a strong anti-imperialist stand, the Western media monopoly is often broken. In these countries, some media outlets, usually state-controlled, provide a point of view that radically departs from that of Western ruling classes. This deprives the wealthy in the West of monopoly control of the means of persuasion. Accordingly, they try to disrupt and disorganize media that challenge their monopoly.
In Zimbabwe, state owned newspapers, including The Herald and The Sunday Mail, reliably present the point of view of the Mugabe government. The Western media criticize these newspapers as “Mugabe’s mouthpieces,” which, in large measure, they are. But while Western media criticize The Herald and The Sunday Mail for reflecting the point of view of the Zimbabwe government, they hide the fact that they too are mouthpieces – not of governments directly, but of the wealthy interests that own them, and indirectly, through the inordinate influence the wealthy exert on Western governments, of Western governments, too. Some of the competing media outlets in Zimbabwe, from community newspapers to SW Radio Africa and the Voice of America’s Studio 7, are mouthpieces of the US and British governments that fund them. The rabidly anti-Mugabe SW Radio Africa, for example, bills itself as the independent voice of Zimbabwe, but operates on funds from the British and other Western governments and Western ruling class foundations. There is nothing independent about it.
Arrayed against Zimbabwe’s state-owned newspapers are “six anti-Mugabe weekly newspapers, three based in Harare, two from South Africa and one from the UK, and all freely distributed in Zimbabwe’s rural areas.”  On top of these are the US government’s Studio 7 and the British government’s SW Radio Africa, plus the ubiquitous – and uniformly anti-Zanu-PF – Western media.
Despite the formidable weight the West has thrown behind anti-Mugabe media, it has still found virtue in going beyond countering The Herald’s and The Sunday Mail’s content, to seeking to intimidate its journalists. In July 2008 the EU announced it was expanding sanctions to include Munyaradzi Huni, the political editor of The Sunday Mail, and Caesar Zvayi, the former political editor of The Herald and a frequent contributor to the newspaper.
Zvayi is nothing, if not anti-imperialist and committed to the Mugabe government’s efforts to invest Zimbabwe’s nominal political independence with real economic content. He describes the Movement for Democratic Change, the Western-created and -guided opposition party, as “a counter-revolutionary Trojan horse that is working with outsiders to subvert the logical conclusion of the Zimbabwean revolution,”  rather than as an organic expression of grassroots Zimbabwean opposition, as Western propagandists would have it. He likens Zanu-PF’s political platform to “getting beyond the façade of flag independence to full socio-economic empowerment of the historically disadvantaged Africans,”  rather than as a program to enrich Mugabe and his cronies, the Western media line. To Zvayi “Zimbabwe represents the last frontier in Africa for the struggle between black nationalist resistance and Western neo-colonial encroachment by proxy,”  rather than the accustomed Western media view of the country as a former breadbasket that has become a failed state owing to “disastrous” land reform policies.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), which says it “seeks ways in which to promote the free flow of information and co-operation between media workers,” refused to condemn the sanctions the EU slapped on Zvayi and Huni. MISA is funded through USAID by the US State Department, through The Westminster Foundation for Democracy by the British Parliament, and through Fahamu by the European Union, the British Department for International Development, and the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Small wonder then that MISA refused to condemn the EU’s sanctions on journalists.  Zvayi, who landed a job as lecturer at the University of Botswana, was later fired and booted out of the country by its president for his association with The Herald.  It seems Botswana puts as little store in the free flow of information as MISA does. Predictably, MISA uttered not a word of protest about Botswana’s actions.
The Zimbabwe Guardian, also known as TalkZimbabwe.com, is a British-based online newspaper that offers a radically different take on what’s going on in Zimbabwe than found in the Western media, or in Western government-funded “independent” news sources, like Studio 7. While it would be going too far to say the newspaper is a Mugabe mouthpiece, it is conspicuously absent of the hysterical anti-Mugabe line that marks the British-based SW Radio Africa. This refusal to contribute to the limitless demonization of Mugabe has landed the online newspaper in hot water in the UK. On December 14, the UK newspaper, The Observer, reported that,
“…there are concerns that a website that carries articles written by UK-based Zimbabweans is acting as a propaganda machine for the Mugabe regime. Talkzimbabwe.com started life as a critic of Mugabe but in recent months has positioned itself strongly behind him and against his rival, Morgan Tsvangirai. Sekai Holland, a veteran political activist who has been targeted by the Mugabe regime, said she was worried the site had been ‘infiltrated’ by Zanu-PF supporters. ‘It’s very dangerous,’ Holland said. ‘This website is being used to spread stories in support of Mugabe.’” 
This portended the beginnings of a campaign of intimidation to disrupt The Zimbabwe Guardian for refusing to toe the West’s anti-Mugabe line. The campaign was given momentum when Lance Guma invited the website’s founder, Itayi Garande, onto SW Radio Africa’s “Reporters Forum.” Guma told Garande,
“A lot of people are saying in view of targeted sanctions that target people who are said to be aiding and abetting the regime and Mugabe, you qualify under that criteria, because you are supporting the regime from here in the United Kingdom and as a result you should be deported. What’s your response?” 
It was clear from what followed that Guma wasn’t particularly interested in Garande’s response; what he was interested in was building momentum for Garande’s eviction from the country and demonizing anyone who publicly challenges Western propaganda. This echoed an earlier media campaign to have an expatriate Zimbabwean who writes opinion pieces for The Herald fired from his job as a London transit worker for “aiding and abetting Mugabe,” that is, challenging the West’s campaign of vilifying the Mugabe government.
Interestingly, SW Radio Africa Guma’s view boils down to this: if you’re not writing propaganda for us (i.e., SW Radio Africa’s sponsors, the former colonial master, Britain) you’re writing propaganda for the other side. Guma would never use the word “propaganda” in connection with SW Radio Africa, though it’s clear that’s what Radio SW Africa does: it propagates a point of view (one congenial to British financial and corporate interests.) Garande, too, writes propaganda, as does anyone who writes to persuade others. The relevant question is: is the content of the persuasive communication true or false, and should someone be fired from his job, deported or sanctioned for writing it? The normative question can be skirted by pointing out that whether it ought to happen or not, it does happen, and it happens often. There is no free environment of public advocacy, no limitless freedom for one to say whatever he pleases with impunity, and there never has been. As George Galloway points out, no one could have marched through the streets of London in 1941 urging support for Hitler and escaped punishment. Today, it many places, no one can deny that Nazi Germany sought to systematically exterminate Jews without facing a jail sentence. You can say that journalism is different from persuasive communications related to political views, but that accepts the fiction that journalism is politically neutral. It never is, whether in the journalism of The Herald, The Zimbabwean Guardian, Radio SW Africa or The New York Times.
Political battles can be waged as much at the level of ideas as on the streets or in the battlefield. Those who engage in battle accept that as a consequence of joining the battle they may face adverse consequences, including death. While those who wage the battle from the field of persuasive communications face less severe penalties (though some are occasionally killed) they’re no more immune from some form of injury than a guerilla or insurrectionist is; they may be fired, deported or sanctioned.
As to the normative question, the answer depends on which value you place higher: the victory of your side in a political battle, or the right of others to advocate an opposing view to marshal support to defeat your side? When conflict represents exploitation versus the end of it, the question becomes, which is senior: The right to be free from exploitation or the right to justify it? There are similar conflicts: between protection of children from sexual exploitation and the right of pedophiles to advocate the production of child pornography; between the right of Africans to achieve true independence and the right of imperialists to demonize anti-imperialist movements to undermine them. Public advocacy rights ought never to be senior to the right to be free from exploitation and oppression. If they are, free expression becomes more important than freedom from exploitation. Inasmuch as exploiters, by virtue of the wealth that is the fruit of their exploitation of others, are likely to have greater access to platforms that allow their free expression of ideas to count, the view that the right of public advocacy is inviolable and absolute is congenial to their interests, but not to those of the exploited. The exploited and oppressed need to struggle to create their own platforms, and preserve the few they have, from the depredations of exploiters who would silence them, by intimidation or otherwise; at the same time, they must be prepared, where they have the upper hand, to subordinate the right of free expression to the right to be free from exploitation and oppression.
1. New African, May 2008.
2. TalkZimbabwe.com, August 1, 2008.
3. The Herald (Zimbabwe), May 29, 2008.
5. The Sunday Mail (Zimbabwe), July 26, 2008.
6. The Herald (Zimbabwe), August 9, 2008.
7. Jamie Doward, “Key Mugabe ally is free to live in London,” The Observer (UK), December 14, 2008.