03/12/2016 12:48 SAST | Updated 03/12/2016 13:17 SAST

Fake News? Mugabe's Got It Covered

President Robert Mugabe waits to address mourners gathered for the funeral of former cabinet minister and ZANU-PF member Cephas Msipa in Harare, Zimbabwe, October 22, 2016. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

That post-Trump fixation on fake news and how to stop it? It could be playing right into the hands of regimes like Zimbabwe president Robert Mugabe's.

Mugabe has been dealing with "fake news" since way before Zimbabwe's tough AIPPA press laws were signed into effect in 2002. (Remember how difficult it was for journalists to get accurate information on the Gukurahundi killings in the 1980s?)

Of course, there is fake news and fake news.

Elephant poisoners

Fake news for hand-wringers in the mainstream US press is reports like the widely-circulated one alleging Pope Francis had backed Donald Trump ahead of the November 8 election, later dismissed as a hoax.

Fake news for Mugabe & Co can sometimes be reports that don't paint his government - or its arms - in a good light. In 2015 three reporters from (unusually) the state press were arrested and accused of spreading falsehoods over a story that implicated police in the poisoning of 60 elephants.

Two-year jail term

Under AIPPA, the publishing of falsehoods was made a criminal offence, attracting a jail term of up to two years.

That provision was later declared unconstitutional. But it hasn't stopped reporters here being arrested for spreading "false stories".

Not long before elections in 2013, independent reporters Dumisani Muleya and Owen Gagare were arrested for publishing falsehoods. That was over a story alleging that officials from the Movement for Democratic Change had approached army chiefs to discuss their future role in the event of a Morgan Tsvangirai win.

Social media "filth"

Mugabe recognises that stories on FB can be a threat. In April Mugabe lashed out at "filth" allegedly being peddled by social media, opening the way for what state media termed "more stringent monitoring" of Zimbabweans on the web.

Supa Mandiwanzira - the cabinet minister who reacted so badly to protest pastor Evan Mawarire's interview on his radio station in May - has confirmed the passing of the ICT policy which allows for more policing of the web.

As Lesotho is doing, Zimbabwe has recently experimented with shutting down access to social media platforms

Fact vs fiction

Zimbabwe DOES have its own fair share of fake new sites. Analysts say this can be partly blamed on the Zimbabwe government's repressive media policies, which have pushed unemployed reporters into writing for less-than-principled outlets. It doesn't help that Mugabe is fairly frequently reported to have died.

But state media is also guilty. Few living in Zimbabwe will be unaware of the massive popular apprehension towards the just-introduced bond notes, a surrogate currency that the government says is meant to reward exporters but has instead been dished out to ordinary bank account holders since Monday. But the pro-Mugabe Herald reported on Tuesday that locals had "scrambled" for bond notes - and thanked the RBZ. The state ZBC broadcaster said attempts to stop bond notes had "failed dismally".

"God has come to vindicate me"

Mugabe's government likes to pride itself on being the first to deal with delicate national choices like... err... printing money.

Former bank chief Gideon Gono (John Mangudya's predecessor) boasted in 2009 that he'd been vindicated in his over-printing of bearer cheques when the US was advised to print money too.

In comments carried by Britain's Daily Telegraph Gono said :"I've been condemned by traditional economists who say printing money drives inflation. But once the IMF advised America to print money, I decided God was on my side and had come to vindicate me."

Will Zimbabwe feel it's been vindicated if other countries start talking about fake news clampdowns?

Jeffrey Smith, founding director of Vanguard Africa says a fresh clampdown on "fake stories" in Zimbabwe's press isn't inconceivable.

He told News24: "Over nearly four decades in power, Robert Mugabe has used every conceivable opportunity to clamp down on critical and independent voices in Zimbabwe. It would thus not be surprising if the Zanu-PF government seized on this new opportunity to escalate attacks on the press, particularly with elections around the corner in 2018."