Covering Injustice

CASE STUDY: Covering the other; Zimbabwe Post-Election Violence

Introduction

The German philosopher Hegel believed that “each consciousness pursues death of ‘the other’ and that a feeling of alienation is created in seeing separateness between one and another. ‘The other’ often faces exclusion, opposition, and hierarchization and is often devalued."  In this media world, this "other" often consists of cultures and communities ideologically and physically distant from the media community covering them.

Both local and international media share a common interest in presenting the plight of ‘the other’. The media address the issues of ‘the other’ by telling of their oppression and are, more often than not, keen on sourcing and telling their stories. Media are supposed to be the mouthpieces of the people. They are the promoters of human rights and should have a position of interest in covering ‘the other’— to draw attention from the global community.

In contemporary societies, ‘the other’ can be categorized in many ways; socially, economically, culturally, and in the case of the 2008 Zimbabwe presidential elections, politically.

The March 29 elections, plus the post-election period, were filled with violence and torture of members of the opposition, particularly those of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), by die-hards of Zimbabwe African National Union - Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) party. In a CNN news report on May 7, 2008, the main opposition party, MDC, reported that 25 supporters had been killed since the elections. The Washington Post on May 8, 2008, reported that two truckloads of youths, led by senior members of President Mugabe’s ZANU PF party, had beaten to death 11 opposition activists in the remote town of Chiweshe. Citizens were intimidated and beaten into saying why they did not vote for Mugabe and were forced to denounce the opposition.

The election results were released early May, and Robert Mugabe was announced the winner although with less than 50% of the majority votes required for an outright win. As such, a run-off election was to be held in June. Media including the BBC, The Telesscope (producers of a Zimbabwean journal) and The Zimbabwe Independent, reported on the brutal killings, beatings, and torture of members of the opposition by members of ZANU PF. They reported on the suffering ‘other’ in the hands of cruel, state-sponsored militias and youth. The Observer (UK) described the situation in Zimbabwe as a ‘political cleansing campaign’ by the state.

Different media used powerfully descriptive stories, videos, and graphic images to show the violence in Zimbabwe. Most graphic images show people with gaping wounds, scourged backs, and burnt body parts. The Telesscope, producers of Telos, a Zimbabwean quarterly journal of politics, culture and arts, ran this story: ‘Zimbabwe after the March 29 election: a faultless coup,’ and cited the systematic war of terror, intimidation, abduction and beatings that Mugabe’s militia was waging on ‘the political other.' It also reported the Zimbabwe Independent (April 11–17, 2008), as carrying a story in which ZANU PF members were moving around waving guns and telling people that the run-off was the last chance for them to vote for ZANU PF.

The Daily Telegraph on August 4, 2008, ran this story: 'Inside Zimbabwe's secret torture camps,' revealing the capture and torture of Mary Nyandoro, number 199 on the list of traitors. Mary was no longer a human being, but just another number. Her crime was voting for the opposition MDC party and for that, she was made to do push-ups as bricks were loaded on to her back. This story was done undercover. Newspapers also used pictures to tell the stories of ‘the other’- the torment and heartache of victims of human rights violation.  The pictures used were often graphic and defined ‘the other’ as the victims of torture and intimidation. In Zimbabwe’s case, pictures in the media showed opposition supporters with gaping wounds, missing body parts and so on.

Africa News online also ran pictures of the brutal injuries inflicted on opposition supporters plus a story revealing the persistent assaults of the supporters. — Warning: Graphic content

Sokwanele, a Civic Action Support group in Zimbabwe, published on its website a photo stream of pictures showing torture injuries sustained by members of the opposition, now victims of human rights violation for being anti-ZANU-PF. — Warning: Graphic content

Several media also used graphics in motion, particularly videos, to show the victimization of opposition supporters in Zimbabwe. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) produced a video, posted on You Tube, showcasing the wrath of Mugabe’s supporters on those who voted ‘wrongly’- for the opposition. — Warning: Graphic content

The BBC’s choice of words in naming the video; ‘Zimbabwe - Human Rights Are For Humans Only,’ is another technique which media used to portray the stigmatized other in Zimbabwe. The media, as is the case with Zimbabwe, was not indifferent to the perpetration of such human rights violations. Several media focused on covering innocent people being victimized purposely to draw attention to ‘the other.'

Australian Broadcasting Corporation, ABC News, also had a video, ‘Gruesome evidence of Zimbabwe violence emerges,’ showing disturbing pictures of victims of violence. — Warning: Graphic content

The media often take a similar position in showing the plight of ‘the other,’ using descriptive stories, catchy headlines, stories of victims’ testimonies, powerful images and videos, and blogs to draw general public attention.  This has the potential to bring about change since for media to be indifferent to the suffering of ‘the other’ is to deny the common man a voice.

Journalists and citizens should be aware of the collective power of the media to attract international intervention through publicizing human rights violation incidences. The media are said to be the vanguard of democracy and from the examples discussed, media have a similar responsibility to defend the rights of ‘the other.’