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Splat goes the master of spin

Zimbabwe’s Information and Publicity Minister Jonathan Moyo performed a dramatic volte-face four years ago, turning full circle from being President Robert Mugabe’s trenchant critic to become his toadying spin doctor.

But now he faces the grim reality of dismissal and crushing out-of-office ignominy.

At the recent Zanu-PF congress Moyo was left out of the crucial central committee and is also likely to be booted out of the politburo. He could also be kicked out of the Cabinet after next year’s general election, if not before that.

Mugabe has attacked Moyo ferociously for convening a “secret and illegal” meeting at a rural Tsholotsho home to plot leadership changes in Zanu-PF.

Moyo’s fall from grace may prove as dramatic as his ascendancy. After his somersault, Moyo, at first an independent-minded and powerful academic, fiercely defended Mugabe left, right and centre.

From being a critical scholar of repute, he became a master of spin and spleen.

He defended the indefensible, almost everything that he had opposed, and in the process damaged his credibility and intellectual reputation.

Moyo was once a leading light in defence of democracy, human rights and press freedom; but after his appointment as Mugabe’s spokesperson he joined the forces of darkness in trampling on those same values.

Appointed minister in July 2000, Moyo found himself in the invidious position of handling the contentious media law reform while rebuilding bridges destroyed by his scorched-earth policy during the abortive constitutional review process in 1999.

However, instead of introducing democratic media policies, he brought in some of the most repressive laws ever.

First he introduced broadcasting laws that, while purporting to regulate the industry, maintained a rigid state monopoly of the electronic media in breach of a court order to open up the airwaves.

In a bid to insulate Mugabe and his regime against criticism, Moyo came up with the draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act.

Under the law, described by the late Zanu-PF MP Eddison Zvobgo as the most “calculated and determined assault on liberties in 20 years”, three newspapers have been closed and dozens of journalists arrested.

Journalists have been recklessly labelled as “terrorists, mercenaries, running dogs of imperialists and enemies of the state” to justify attacks against them.

The South African media are casually referred to as the “apartheid press”, while the Western media are said to be the “imperialist press”.

In so doing, Moyo has broken the cardinal rule of spin doctoring — failing to become the storyteller and becoming the news himself.

He has failed to appreciate that dealing with the media has its own ground rules and conventions, tricks of the trade and techniques.

For a start, Moyo seems not to unerstand his job description. Nor does he seem to understand that he cannot meaningfully defend Mugabe unless he is credible to the press.

Lanny Davis, spokesperson for former United States president Bill Clinton, relates his experiences in his book Truth to tell: Tell it Early, Tell it All, Tell it Yourself.

“You can’t help the president unless you are credible to the press,” he says. “Never, never lie or mislead the press. If you are under pressure to do that, then refuse or resign. If you can’t answer a question completely or honestly, then tell the reporter.”

Davis says: “If giving them [journalists] half the information is going to mislead them into writing an inaccurate story, then give them nothing.”

Telling the truth, especially unpalatable truths, can be painful, but to deny the truth, or worse still to lie, is far more damaging.

Moyo also seems to like bad spin and crude propaganda — deception, in other words. He appears not to understand that one cannot not turn a bad story — such as the Zimbabwe crisis — into a good one by suppressing the media, hiding information or distorting it.

At present journalists face two years in jail for working without government accreditation. A number of foreign correspondents have been deported as Moyo has tried to draw an iron curtain around Zimbabwe.

The state media, which Moyo controls, is shackled and now operates almost exclusively as Zanu-PF’s propaganda mouthpieces.

A new, crude form of inflammatory journalism based on vitriol, muckraking and fiction has taken root in the government-controlled media. Stories are twisted — and if need be invented — to discredit Mugabe’s critics and Moyo’s personal rivals.

For instance, stories have been written claiming that the opposition Movement for Democratic change wants to bomb all tall buildings in Zimbabwe; that it wants to spread anthrax; and that South Africa’s wealthy Oppenheimer family wants to stage a coup against Mugabe.

There have also been stories about the British and Americans trying to invade Zimbabwe or about them hijacking fuel destined for Zimbabwe on the high seas.

Moyo’s propaganda exploits have prompted parallels between him and Joseph Goebbels. But the problem is that nobody — even his own colleagues or state media journalists — believes him any more.

Some now say that, like Grigori Rasputin, for all his intelligence and hard work, Moyo’s name has become a symbol of disaster.

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