International Papers

A French Kiss for Mugabe

The Belgians and the French rolled out the red carpet for Robert Mugabe during his visit to the continent last week, appalling the British press. Why such a show of deference for the Zimbabwean despot? Mugabe was attending diplomatic discussions about the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Zimbabwe garrisons thousands of troops. The Times claimed that while Mugabe officially supports the withdrawal of foreign armies from DRC, “No one believes that Mr Mugabe has any intention of withdrawal: too many returning angry troops could reinforce the Opposition and, as long as Kinshasa has no control over the sprawling hinterland, Mr Mugabe will continue to smuggle out much-needed wealth.” The Sunday Times huffed:

With its accommodating politicians, excellent food and good shopping, Paris is a favourite destination for African dictators taking a break from troubles at home; and there may be no better political deodorant for a despot stinking of corruption than a pomp-filled tête-à-tête with a French president. … The French are not known for squeamishness in relations with African leaders whose neglect of democracy often goes hand in hand with unbridled sovereignty over mineral riches.

An excellent op-ed in the Zimbabwe Standard addressed Mugabe’s “failure at Statecraft,” specifically his failure to parlay Zimbabwe’s involvement in the DRC conflict into tangible benefits for the country:

[W]hat are the practical benefits to Zimbabwe of Mugabe’s visits to Belgium and France? None that immediately come to mind. … The clever, cynical French and Belgians win whichever way you look at it. If the DRC war continues, they get to sell arms to Zimbabwe and all the other warring parties. Zimbabweans and Ugandans could be slaughtering each other with weapons from the same Belgian or French factory! If peace comes to the DRC, they stand to benefit much more than countries like Zimbabwe, which have comparatively little investing and trading capacity.

In Brussels, British gay rights activist Peter Tatchell attempted to make a citizen’s arrest of Mugabe, which earned him a beating from the president’s bodyguards. In the aftermath, Tatchell won support from unexpected quarters. As the Sunday Times noted: “Special ink pots are reserved on [conservative] papers such as the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph for the likes of Tatchell. The ink is replaced with vitriol. He may not always have been at the very top of their hate list, but he’s never been far from it.” As a result of his Mugabe-mauling, however, Tatchell became a hero. The Mail said, “The Peter Tatchell left bruised and bloodied in a Brussels gutter is a better man than the EU politicians who have been fawning over Mugabe this week.” An editorial in the pro-government Herald of Harare was contemptuous of the “gay gangster,” however. It maintained, the “severe thumping … should serve as a warning to all those who have made it their trademark to denigrate the President at every turn and without any cause at all. … Tatchell was so naïve that he did not think such action could cost him his life and should be thankful that the President’s security men did not shoot him down like a dog.”

One citizen, one-vote: Hours after Ariel Sharon’s national unity government was sworn in last week, the Israeli Knesset voted to repeal the “direct election” law, which since 1996 required voters to cast separate ballots for prime minister and parliamentary representatives. Other reforms made it more difficult to topple a government via a no-confidence vote. Ha’aretz said the direct election law was “widely blamed for the instability of the last two Israeli governments and the rise of sectarian parties focused on narrow interests.” An op-ed in the Jerusalem Post called the repeal “the most important event of this political year” and declared:

Instead of bringing more unity, honesty, integrity, and stability to our political life, [direct election] caused the further deterioration of all the ills that existed in the old system. It weakened the big parties to a point of almost total destruction. … Altogether, it brought more instability to our parliamentary life and opened more opportunities for corruption and the buying and selling of votes.

The official story: After a classroom explosion killed at least 42 people in eastern China last Tuesday, the official Xinhua news agency insisted the explosion was the work of a deranged suicide bomber. However, a blast survivor quoted in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post claimed the school had doubled as a child-labor fireworks factory for the past four years. In stories appearing in several papers, local villagers blamed the blast on a production accident. According to the Hong Kong i-Mail, as soon as the mainland press published stories questioning the official version of events, Beijing insisted that only Xinhua be allowed to investigate and write about the blast: “In contrast to previous practice, all major media organs on the mainland stopped posting their own follow-up stories on their websites yesterday and only carried the Xinhua version.” The leading mainland Web site was also forced to close down chat rooms because so many posters accused the government of a cover-up.

An editorial in the SCMP implored Beijing to hold a full inquiry with “unhindered” media coverage: “No matter how embarrassing or harrowing the facts, they must be confronted. That is the only way to deal with the anguish of the bereaved and the survivors, and the quickest way to restore credibility to the authorities.” Villagers interviewed in Monday’s SCMP denied that education cuts made fireworks production an economic necessity; the sister of a 9-year-old killed in the blast told the paper, “The teachers forced students to make fireworks because they are corrupt, not because the school needed money.”

Kim-TV: Last week the Moscow Times published a glimpse into North Korean state television, which devotes hours of programming to leader Kim Jong-il’s factory tours:

A narrator with the voice of a castrato speaks in trilling, almost hysterical tones as Kim makes his rounds. … Crowds make fist-clenching salutes and beat their chests, or they wave both hands in the air, jumping as if in ecstasy, like toy poodles whose master has returned home after an absence. Kim’s mind evidently is untroubled by mere curiosity. He never seems to ask a question; rather, he lectures the experts. He snatches pointers to jab at wall maps or diagrams. Oddly, his voice is never audible—only the narrator’s.