Posted by Suzanne Nossel
I know we all sorta feel like the most important thing to talk about is how we get our act together as a progressive foreign policy movement, and I find all my co-blogger's ideas on the subject exciting (look here, here, here and here for words of wisdom).
But in the meantime the world is moving. Since we seem to be in for at least a week of all-Pope-all-the-time, I want to take a brief commercial break to focus on this week's outrage in Zimbabwe.
CNN declares that Zimbabwe Ruling Party Wins Majority and the New York Times reports that Mugabe's Party Wins Majority in Zimbabwe. Google news is rife with similar headlines. Yet all the outlets go on to report the truth about this week's parliamentary elections there - that people were intimidated, eligible voters were turned away at the polls, some ballot boxes were see-through, polling was held in the homes of partisan chiefs, poor people were threatened with the withdrawal of food aid if they voted against Mugabe's ZANU-PF party, etc. Never mind that, regardless of the outcome of the vote, Mugabe has arrogated for himself the right to personally appoint 30 of the country's 150 legislators.
It's precisely Mugabe's game to hold elections that are just barely plausible enough to garner him reports of victory and some sort of mandate to continue in office. He's banking on the fact that if the headlines suggest he will stay in office, few will bother to even read the articles that list out reasons why he shouldn't. For reasons I don't understand, American news outlets seem willing to play along.
Meanwhile, Mugabe is running what was one of Africa's greatest success stories straight into the ground. The currency is worthless, the farmlands are being laid to waste, skilled people have left in droves, the media has been largely shut down, respected judges have been run out of office, the health care system has disintegrated, the country is fast running out of food and life expectancy has been sliced in half. If you want to know more and don't mind crying while you read check out a website called Sokwanele (it means enough is enough) run by Zimbabwe's opposition as well as their blog.
I remember that as a very young child when we went to visit my grandparents in South Africa the airplane lights would go off as we flew over what was then Rhodesia in the death spiral of colonialism. Years later, when I worked in South Africa during that country's democratic transition, Zimbabwe was a guiding light and a hopeful example. Now it represents most South Africans' worst nightmare; one that is far too close for comfort both geographically and historically.
What I don't get is why the international media would in any way legitimize Mugabe's continued rule. I don't know the details well enough to really compare, but when fraud allegations arose in relation to Ukraine's October, 2004 elections the international media pounced, a re-vote was held and opposition leader Viktor Yuschenko now runs the country. The New York Times first story on that election seems to have been headlined Premier Claims He's the Winner in Ukraine Vote; unlike Mugabe Yanukovych never got the benefit of the doubt.
A major obstacle to building the momentum needed to oust Mugabe is the support he has from South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki and other leaders in the region. This goes back to out-dated (but hardly baseless) notions of the need for African solidarity to counter Western pressure and neo-colonial interference. The African Union's intolerance for an attempted coup d'etat by the son of Togo's longtime military ruler barely a month ago was an encouraging sign that African leaders may be getting ready to put principle and public welfare above blind fealty. But Mugabe remains a hero in many eyes for his role in liberating Zimbabwe, and African leaders are not prepared to treat him the same way they did a largely unknown, upstart power-grabber in Togo.
African leaders failure to take a stand on Zimbabwe is having tragic results. But that's no excuse for the failure of the mainstream media to call Mugabe on his shameless power play and flat-out refuse to legitimize the results of an election that was by all accounts deeply flawed.