Johannesburg // In the parallel universe of Zimbabwe's state-owned newspaper, The Herald, Robert Mugabe is wildly popular, the opposition is responsible for political violence and the country's travails are entirely down to western machinations. "It's a landslide!" the paper said on the day after Mr Mugabe's re-election, in a one-candidate race, was announced. Throughout the final days of the campaign, it maintained the fiction that the presidential runoff was a contested poll.
In an editorial on the results, it pronounced: "It is God who appoints and anoints leaders of nations and he has now produced a clear winner in this election to heal the division that has seen brother turning against brother." Appealing for the nation to unite behind the winner, and ignoring the 100-odd Movement for Democratic Change supporters beaten, burnt and hacked to death in the run-up to the vote, it added: "No matter what the world, especially the West, may say, President Mugabe is a champion of reconciliation and magnanimity and has the record to show for it."
Yesterday it slanted its coverage of the G8 meeting in Japan's decision to press for financial sanctions against the regime to claim that the measures would be against the country as a whole, while a comment-page piece decried Raila Odinga, the Kenyan prime minister and one of the continent's few vocal critics of the ruling party, Zanu-PF, as "a disgrace to Africa". It is adept at extracting and focusing on any non-critical lines in a summit communiqué, to name one example, while every Saturday a columnist called Nathaniel Manheru - widely believed to be a pseudonym for George Charamba, Mr Mugabe's spokesman who said his critics could "go hang a thousand times" - pens a 2,000-word diatribe against enemies and their plots, real and imagined.
Even so, every day vendors sit out at road junctions in Harare with stacks of copies, printed on thin paper, that do sell. The Mugabe government clearly believes that the publication's message is one worth getting to the people - in the days before the vote, the cover price was held at Z$200 million (Dh0.04) before it went up to Z$8 billion shortly afterwards. Andrew Moyse, a former journalist who is now co-ordinator of the Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe, which analyses bias among the country's information outlets, said: "It's basically just to promote the image of the ruling party and the man who calls himself the president. It does disseminate information but it's information that's suitable to the ruling party and the president.
"The fact that they suffocated all news about the violence against the MDC was the perfect example of the fact that these things are just vehicles for propaganda. "It's not even what I would call a newspaper, it's quite clearly just a propaganda sheet." Despite its sales figures - circulation was hovering around 17,000 copies per day at the start of the year but has since dropped due to a shortage of newsprint - readers take it "with a pinch of salt", he said.
Zimbabwe's media environment was a "wasteland" he said, but at one point the country had a 75 per cent literacy rate, leaving those seeking information little choice but to buy The Herald. "It's self-evident they don't believe it because if they did they [the ruling party] wouldn't need to beat the daylights out of the population." It is a phenomenon that is replicated across much of Africa, said Anton Harber, Caxton professor of journalism and media studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa.
Mr Harber co-edited an independent liberal newspaper, The Weekly Mail, in white-ruled South Africa. During his time there he was was prosecuted several times and had a restriction order imposed on him. The government suspended publication of the paper in 1988. "Why did we continue to watch television news in apartheid South Africa when we knew it was directly straight controlled and a central part of the government's information-control regime?" he said.
"Well, people get news and information where they can, particularly when they have few options and where they have a real hunger to see signs of movement or change. "I suspect only a handful of people read papers such as The Herald because they believe it, but this does not mean one cannot glean valuable information from it - even if only to understand what the government is thinking and planning.
"Many will develop a sharp and instinctive sense of how to read between the lines, how to find what they need to know amidst the rubbish, how to identify what is not being reported, how to unpack what is being said and choose between what is useless information and what is useful. In difficult situations, we all do the best we can with what we can get our hands on." @Email:email@example.com