‘Can’t touch this’: ZANU-PF’s media victory

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The framing of the Zimbabwean elections has been fiercely contested for months now, as each side has attempted to create the context in which the poll results would be read. In the crucial period between the polls closing and the election results being announced next week, Alex Laverty argues that ZANU-PF have secured a major media victory.

Social media, and Twitter in particular, enables people to follow news events in real time around the world. On 31 July 2013 and into 1 August, #ZimElections became a worldwide trending topic as the voting in Zimbabwe concluded, and Zimbabweans woke up to a state of limbo. The Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) was not to release the elections results until next Monday – an eternity in today’s connected world – but with a law prohibiting anyone from making pronouncements about the results, surely everyone would hold their tongues till that date? Not ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe’s party, the incumbent with a long track record of election manipulation. With elections concluded, the party’s propaganda machine kicked into action when an unnamed spokesmen was given a bullhorn in the @ReutersAfrica Twitter handle, the first news outlet to broadcast the news of a Mugabe victory:

‘Calling’ the presidential election for Mugabe so early in the process seemed odd. Reuters’ tweet was followed by some incredulous responses from Twimbos (Zimbabweans on Twitter).

Nearly 30 minutes later, Reuters tweeted the rebuke from the MDC-T:

But at this point a narrative was already forming: ZANU-PF had won, and the MDC was ‘crying’ foul. I said as much, which got a RT and response from @AfricaStrategist.

With this video making the rounds on twitter at the same time, surely Reuters had jumped the gun:

Other journalists in Southern Africa were also asking the same questions:

Reuters certainly handed an advantage to ZANU-PF with their headlines. To contrast with other news outlets, look how the BBC presented the same proclamation and the counter:

In fact, ZANU-PF were not the first to get their message out. Tendai Biti, the Secretary General of Tsvangirai’s MDC, had been on SABC in South Africa accusing their opponents of vote rigging before the tweet came out from Reuters. Did that matter once ZANU-PF had so easily stepped onto Reuter’s global media platform? Perhaps it did, given that SADC members will be a key player in managing the fall out from this election, and its members may well be more influenced by SABC than Reuters. But that depends on how much you think SADC members had already made their minds up about the election and what their response to it would be.

Having followed the events through Twitter and the relevant news agencies, it seemed to me that the strategic communication plan for ZANU-PF seemed to be working brilliantly (if it was in fact coordinated, and not happenstance). Here’s a game plan that fits ZANU-PF’s actions so far:

  • Anticipating a loss in a fair election, begin to put the mechanisms in place to rig the vote: bussing, extra help for illiterate voters (in a country with 95% literacy), and of course simply denying the vote to typical MDC voters (read: the urban population). This can’t be done covertly, but that’s not important.
  • Before anyone can claim a rigged elections (especially the ZEC) claim that you’ve won. Make sure you get a major news outlet to carry your verdict. That way, you set the tone for the interval period before the ZEC announces its verdict and cause the MDC to respond and cry foul. This has the added benefit of feeding into everyone’s worst fears of a Mugabe win and helps deflate any counter measures the MDC may deploy in the media or on the streets.
  • Learn lessons from 2008 and use little physical intimidation. Violence was what got the international media interested in the story, not the ‘typical’ African vote rigging. SADC and the AU will then be free to sign off on peaceful elections.
  • Without SADC’s or the AU’s condemnation,  you have the perfect media storm: MDC and Western Media calling ‘offside’, with ZANU being backed by the big African representatives. Use this setting to accuse every person or organization who is crying foul of being part of the Western Conspiracy against Mugabe.
  • As you have jumped out first, everyone else (foreign Embassies, news organizations and even the ZEC) will be forced to scramble for the actual facts before they can start speaking in the press.

If the whole plan was not so devious, you’d really have to tip your hat to ZANU-PF. What’s worse, though, is that no-one in the MDC was able to see this coming. Where was the winning counter narrative?

Of course, the Reuters’ Africa team will, and should, also face many questions about their  journalistic standards. Using an anonymous source to support a claim that the team should have known was propaganda seems dodgy at best. Now, we face a situation where the debate is over whether the election was rigged, not how Mugabe did it.

Obviously, the final election results will make a robust analysis more feasible, but in the media space that was there to be won in the immediate aftermath of the elections, ZANU-PF has scored a resounding victory. The satirical twitter handle @ZANU_PF summed it up best on 2nd August:

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