Long before Al Jazeera’s Investigative Unit broadcast its damning Gold Mafia documentary on gold smuggling in Africa, the response of local media outlets to this scandal was entirely predictable.
The investigation uncovered huge corruption and collaboration between Africa’s Gold Mafia and senior government figures. In one instance - caught on camera by a reporter posing as a gangster - a senior African ambassador offers to launder $1.2 million using the cover of his diplomatic bag.
So why isn’t this level of corruption being uncovered by local news organisations? Media coverage of corruption involving the ruling elites in southern African countries has for decades either been lukewarm, or completely lacking. The mainstream media in southern Africa simply doesn’t take a stand on it.
One major result of this lack of media interest is that governments’ anti-corruption drives have been just as lukewarm - largely ceremonial and completely ineffective at bringing culprits to book. Here, in Zimbabwe, for example, despite being awarded some 3.6 billion Zimbabwean dollars (more than US$33 million) to combat “graft” (corruption) in 2021, the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission has failed to make even one solitary arrest.
Before the scheduled March 2 airing of Al Jazeera’s documentary, Zimbabwe’s state-controlled daily newspaper, the Herald, published a piece accusing Al Jazeera of seeking to “undermine the good work which is being done by President Mnangagwa and Zanu PF”.
Keep in mind that this was before the documentary had even been aired.
For reasons unknown, the Herald’s online version of the article was later taken down. For a state publication that largely ignores corruption cases involving the political elites, this seemed an odd move and suggests the initial publication of the article was done in haste, in an attempt to see off any criticism of the government. It was a poorly thought through strategy and smacked of desperation.
On March 6, before Episode 1: The Laundry Service was aired on March 23, the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) governor issued a press statement, denying any involvement in the smuggling syndicate, calling the “public to dismiss the false allegations with the contempt they deserve.”
Both local and international publications covered the press statement. However, rumours in Zimbabwe that a few selected local and international journalists had been granted prior access to snippets of the documentary were swirling around. The insinuation was that anyone who had been given prior viewing of parts of the documentary must have helped with it.
They were quickly labelled as being hostile to Zimbabwe, plotting to portray the country as a rogue state - traitors effectively.
This was further used to discredit Al Jazeera’s documentary - using the notion that it had been cobbled together by entirely anti-Zimbabwe journalists hostile to the nation.
Interestingly, before the documentary aired, the Chronicle, another state-controlled daily paper, did run a story revealing that nearly $100 million worth of gold was being smuggled each month in Zimbabwe. Unlike the Al Jazeera documentary, however, the Chronicle article only revealed the extent of the smuggling. It failed to mention the players involved at all.
Since the Al Jazeera investigation was aired, private media outlets, led by the NewsDay and News Hawks, have made real attempts to follow up the story, serialising the ongoing investigation, speaking truth to power and taking a keen interest on the President’s close links to people mentioned in the investigation, even mentioning him by name. These articles have irked the ruling party, leading to some threats against these media outlets and their journalists , via a twitter handle attributed to the presidential spokesperson, George Charamba, and under the guise of “friendly advice”.
As usual, these sorts of “warnings” have resulted in self-censorship, particularly by the state media, which has gone completely silent on the issue or only reported the bare minimum. Hopewell Chin’ono, an award-winning journalist who has been previously arrested for “communicating falsehoods”, said he would tone down his criticism, citing the threats. The threats were however immediately condemned by media owner Trevor Ncube, the regional media, such as the Mail and Guardian in South Africa and media organisations widely condemned this sort of intimidation aimed at journalists, correctly seen as a way to silence the media as the nation heads towards elections.
More empty promises
Despite the overwhelming evidence of corruption and government links to gold smuggling, state media continued to dismiss the investigation as a “hatchet job” - thus failing completely in the correct remit of the media which should be to inform and to tell the truth.
After weeks of denial by the Zimbabwe government. However, state media suddenly changed its stance, with the ministry of information issuing a statement via the state broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), saying that law enforcement agents would investigate those implicated in the documentary.
On April 6, the Herald revealed that the assets of four people fingered in the gold smuggling documentary had been frozen, although the assets in question were not mentioned, nor was there any attempt to interview the accused parties.
A day later, the state Herald wrote that accounts belonging to four more main players in the smuggling ring had been frozen, adding that arrests were imminent. However, many people queried how they froze accounts, when cash was mainly used in the gold smuggling operation. A follow-up article by the Herald on April 11, claimed that police would investigate allegations in the documentary, but did not further elaborate on who would be targeted and what sort of evidence the police is relying on.
Some independent local media, such as The Independent, have probed the allegations, further exposing more gold looting. For their efforts, however, they have been accused of furthering a Western-sponsored propaganda project, concerned with tarnishing the country and Africa’s image. By daring to publish the president’s name, local private media outlets also attract the label of “regime change agents”, seeking to tarnish the image of the first family and the country. It is a thankless task.
‘An elitist documentary’
In South Africa, the South Africa Broadcast Corporation (SABC) has taken an interest in the gold smuggling scandal, featuring the documentary producer.
The broadcaster has taken a more “neutral mediator” approach to the subject, giving different parties a platform to speak out and be heard. The SABC also covered the picketing at Urbert Angel’s church in Johannesburg, which is one of the protagonists in Al Jazeera’s documentary.
Newzroom Afrika, another South African broadcaster, gave generous airtime to the investigation, which also mentioned some of the country’s banks as channels of money laundering, interviewing experts.
But, overall, this coverage has focused on the elite players in this drama, and failed to speak to local people and find out how alleged gold smuggling affects ordinary people.
Since the documentary premiered, social media has been alive, coining numerous hashtags making it go viral. Social media - especially Twitter, where the debate has been raging - has minimal reach in Zimbabwe. But there has been robust debate and engagement from various parties, taking the role that ought to belong to mainstream media.
The local media environment remains polarised and under threat in Zimbabwe, even more so with the upcoming elections. But there are signs that things are changing: The use of the #GoldMafia hashtag to identify the culprits has been widely accepted in the media, a clear sign that there is indeed a consensus within the media houses and professionals, albeit a subtle one.
Derrick Matsengarwodzi is an independent journalist based in Zimbabwe
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance