Mnangagwa GNU story exposes the hazards of leak journalism

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A FRESH Reuters story, “Behind the scenes, Zimbabwe politicians plot post-Mugabe reforms” ( is currently trending.
Based on a “trove of hundreds of documents” leaked by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and information from anonymous sources, the story basically claims that Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa has been working with various agencies to plot a transitional regime after President Robert Mugabe.
The scheme reportedly involves giving back land to thousands of white farmers who were ejected under the fast track land redistribution programme that started in 2000. It would also involve Mnangagwa collaborating with Morgan Tsvangirai in a five-year transitional authority in the event that Mugabe leaves office through death or incapacitation. All with the blessings and possible support of the British government.
There is no doubt that thousands of people who read the story have already formed the perception that, indeed, there is a post-Mugabe plot as given by Reuters. The headline casts that perception in a rock. This is a busy world and many readers hardly go beyond the headline and the first five paragraphs of a story. And Reuters still commands much respect internationally as a credible news house.
I wish to use this particular story to illustrate the pitfalls that come with the media leaning too heavily on leaked documents. It doesn’t matter here if or not there is indeed such a plot, but the Reuters news crew seems to have forgotten simple journalistic rules.
When someone comes over to you panting under a “trove” of documents, the first thing you must do is to ask yourself why that person is being so generous. This is a primary question that must inform your decision to write a story or trash the trove. Then you must go through the documents and determine if they make good sense.
After that, you must verify the contents. Not by merely picking up the phone so that named individuals or institutions may confirm or deny the allegations and then telling us they either declined to comment or were not available. You must investigate the claims. Outside that, it’s immoral yellow journalism that, instead of properly informing readers, is likely to mislead the audience and generate dangerous “knowledge”.Advertisement

Leak journalism is as old as the news profession, no doubt. What matters is how it is handled. It comes with numerous hazards, most of which will easily see journalists slipping down the hill as agents of post-truths or outright falsehoods. In this era of fake news, that likelihood is worrying. As already implied, people have different motives for “leaking” information. Most of those sublime motives are sinister and the leakers hardly care for truth and accuracy. Even where the leaked information turns out to be true, it is the context that must seize journalists. People are usually not so generous with information and would want the world to know the “truth” when it suits them.
In summary, it demonstrates the high possibility of media manipulation and provides a good cause why we must always sit back and give our sources a hard and long stare before committing ourselves to the keyboard. Above all, it shows that the media must go beyond leaked information and thoroughly investigate whatever claims are contained in documents given by stiff hands.
To start with, it is easy for spy agencies the world over to build cases around fabricated or manipulated documents. It doesn’t matter that there are hundreds of them. They could give you thousands of documents that appear splendidly genuine if they wanted. Our own CIO is no exception. It is increasingly recruiting educated agents, upskilling them and hiring skilled informers and advisors.
The originators of the manipulated information do not have to necessarily do it for common institutional interests of the CIO. We know that the spy agency is divided along factional fault lines. That means that cliques within the organisation can easily set agendas to advance the interests of the respective political factions within Zanu PF. In this case, it is not lame to suspect that a faction that is opposed to Mnangagwa could have generated the “trove” of documents. On the other hand, it remains possible that a clique loyal to Mnangagwa is also busy doing the same against his foes.
This is a season of factionalised slander in Zanu PF. The party is set for a crucial conference in December. There are tell-tale signs that the conference could turn into a special elective congress to address Mugabe’s long delayed succession.
The hounds, particularly Mnangagwa’s Team Lacoste and the G40 in which Mugabe’s wife, Grace, is a key actor, have smelt the blood as the 93-year-old president certainly moves into his political twilight. They all want the highest prize, Mugabe’s post. So they will scrape out all the muck and throw it at their foes if that will boost their chances. And that includes going to the factory to mill all sorts of documents.
Tellingly, the Reuters reporters seem to acknowledge this. The problem, though, is that they do it when the horse has already bolted. They admit that there is no verifiable evidence to prove the authenticity of the leaked reports or their origin close to the end of the story. That is in the seventh last paragraph in a story that contains 59 paragraphs! Ordinarily, this acknowledgement must come in the first paragraph—or even headline—so that readers are set on an informed path. Delaying declaring this vital fact is, at least, dishonest. But then, it also mirrors a tendency among journalists to run with the selling and not necessarily ethical pitch.
And there are several other wrong things in the way the leaked documents were handled. There is a clear neglect of requisite research and verification. Clearly, CIO agents wouldn’t write their reports in the manner that is presented. One of the reports states: “Mugabe is totally against the idea of Mnangagwa being too friendly to the whites”. The fawning spooks never do it like that. They invariably refer to Mugabe as “His Excellency”.
That must have given a good reason to suspect that something was shady about the reports, or at least some of them. This indicates that the documents could have originated from quarters other than the mainstream CIO offices.
Even if you would shelve faulting the Reuters team for not knowing this, the crew must have smelt a rat in this type of intelligence reporting. It raises questions around who, actually, was supposed to be the audience of the purported reports. Ultimately, all intelligence reports are supposed to be consumed by the president, as Reuters also usefully acknowledged. Does it then make sense to make reference to Mugabe in this manner, as if he would never have to read the reports?
Besides, there seems to be inconsistencies, if not contradictions, in the reports and, in turn, the Reuters story. On one hand, it is alleged that the plot is premised on Mnangagwa taking over as the leader of a coalition outfit when Mugabe departs. It is not clear how this would happen, of course. But more importantly, towards the end of the story, it is then claimed that some generals are seen to be preferring Tsvangirai as the leader of the next political dispensation.
Which is which? It appears that the leakers of the document were so much in a hurry to build a case against Mnangagwa that they forgot to walk on the straight path. In Zimbabwe, it is a treasonous to hold ambitions to succeed Mugabe as it is to commit real treason. The point, though, is that the writers of the story must have seen through this inconsistency too. It is common in leaked documents.
Looking at the current political context, it looks like those that composed the documents and then apparently leaked them knew just too well what impact making reference to Tsvangirai would bring.
Already, the war veterans body has publicly stated that it would not have a problem working with the opposition leader for as long as that meant Mugabe was ousted.
This association and top generals prefer a Mnangagwa takeover. Writing purported intelligence documents that link Mnangagwa to Tsvangirai is therefore a smart way of driving Mugabe very mad. The documents could simply be repeating publicly stated knowledge in a different context in what appears like a clever scheme to fortify a case against Mnangagwa.
Closely related to this is what appears like a conscious and strategic choice of the other protagonists in the documents. If you want Mugabe to take decisive action against someone, just tell the president that, that person wants to return land to white people. It’s a smear trick that guarantees close to 100 percent success, other things being equal. Throw in the British for a measure and your foe is as dead as mutton.
Yet, honestly, it sounds unconvincing that Mnangagwa would want to return land to expelled white farmers. Compensation to the affected farmers, yes. But reversing the land redistribution programme is unthinkable given the new political-agrarian relations. You cannot chase away the resettled farmers without risking another wave of social, economic and political instability. And this is something that could never be lost on Mnangagwa even if he was too anxious to please some sections of the international community.  Even Tsvangirai has admitted that the fast track land redistribution exercise is a fait accompli. The United Nations too.
There documents availed to Reuters seem to make no mention of Joice Mujuru as an actor in the post-Mugabe narrative. This is mysterious considering that the papers date back to 2009. Mujuru was expelled from Zanu PF for harbouring ambitions to succeed Mugabe even though her rivals described that as a plot to topple her boss. I have no doubt that she had such ambitions. She must, at least, have featured in the documents. This omission betrays a rather acute anxiety to pitch an anti-Mnangagwa spin. Something Reuters should have picked.
The point is, if a journalist fails to question the motives of the one who leaks the documents, neglects verifying and investigating them and is too relaxed to critique the information at hand, he or she is bound to miss the real story.
Tawanda Majoni is a Zimbabwean journalist and media analyst.