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Court of public opinion is real

Nick Mangwana View From the Diaspora
Tomorrow Zimbabwe is going to experience a reality show as the Constitutional Court presides over the election petition against President Mnangagwa’s electoral victory.

Lawyers are going to turn into artists. There will be grandstanding actors and dramatists and some are going to be humiliatingly slapped down by the judges if their antics go overboard.

This is a moment in which Zimbabwe is going to have caricatures and some will be instant celebrities. It is going to be a spectacle, which the Zimbabwean people seem by and large supportive of. But also on trial will be our democracy. All will hang on those nine judges but a lot more will be in the court of public opinion.

We have already seen the MDC-Alliance try to control the narrative by leaking false information, fake narratives, hold freaky press conferences and peddle fake news in a bid to establish in the minds of their ready-to-believe supporters that they won an election whose votes they don’t even want to recount.

Whilst there is no jury in the Zimbabwean judicial system, in a legitimacy case like this, the views of the public matter a lot. The public wants to know that the governing authorities have a legitimate claim to power. This is what the opposition is busy trying to undercut and undermine. They want to make sure that they remain relevant by sabotaging the incumbent’s political term because any successful term will crowd out their political space and they lose all relevancy.

Their main thrust is to ensure that there are question marks over the legitimacy of President Mnangagwa even if they lose the case, as expected.

They have been trying to settle a false “rigged” narrative in the consciousness of the public just the same way they did with the fantasy “Nikuv”. They are trying to leave a lot of unanswered questions in the minds of the public and thus win their case in the court of public opinion through propaganda and publishing fake news and false narratives.

We have already experienced extrajudicial statements which have become commonplace. Things have slightly moved on as now they are coming through proxies and surrogates. So the adjudicative process that’s taking place tomorrow is the main show but the drama playing in the public sphere is another. These guys have not only been working the case, they have been working the public mood just the same way they did in the build-up to the elections.

Managing public relations and setting narratives in this 24-hour internet age has become so sophisticated and complex that credit has to be given to the Zanu-PF leadership for picking on the bid to manipulate public opinion and agreeing to the screening of the case live on television. After all, there is absolutely nothing to hide. Zimbabwe allowed the world to observe its elections unfettered. Some abused that by pushing their own agendas but still Zimbabwe has no problem in allowing them to have access to our judicial processes. As before, we have nothing to hide. This here gives the public a direct access to the court proceedings and makes the Zimbabwean people less susceptible to radical opposition propaganda and falsehoods. Let the public make its own views about what’s fake and what’s real. The battle for public opinion is real.

The broad definition of public opinion is the thought of society at a given time towards something. It is seen as the power of a certain group to sway the attitudes of a larger group. In this case the efforts being made are to undermine the Zimbabwean State by undermining its institutions through manipulating public opinion against it. First, it was the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), it moved to the Presidency and then to the Judiciary.

Zimbabwe has seen the transformation of the main opposition into a radical organisation with some extreme and aggressive approach to politics. This could be a misinterpretation of vibrancy and radicalism. Both their leaders and followers have taken to spreading falsehoods, misinformation and disinformation in their quest to win both power and public disapproval of the incumbent, State institutions and the Judiciary.

A highly compromised mainstream media readily available to help propagate conspiracy theories not at all rooted in facts has provided itself as a willing ally. This is why we have seen so many falsehoods about the percentage of President Mnangagwa’s victory. We have seen further fake figures being peddled purporting to represent the events of July 30, 2018 and the highly partisan Zimbabwean media has chosen to give some legs to these. There is social media banter, which is just simple socialisation, but there is a very subversive underground fringe that generates these highly sophisticated contrived lies.

This is probably the same that attempted to hack ZEC computers and interfere with the results soon after the elections. These are not just bored young people having some nefarious pleasure. They are a highly sophisticated group of cyber terrorists, and techno-savvy amalgam of foreigners and Zimbabweans taking advantage of the participatory culture to manipulate public opinion to subvert the will of the people of Zimbabwe as expressed in the July 30 harmonised elections.

The case tomorrow is not only going to define who governs our country.

It will define a new way of managing public opinion in legitimacy cases. There are going to be future cases and there is going to be a need to manage public narratives. This is Africa, elections are disputed no matter how fair and transparent they are held.

So here in Zimbabwe there are now two public majorities being fought. We had a majority that chose President Mnangagwa. There is a new public majority on social media. Public opinion has a lot of bearing on attitudes towards a government. There have been efforts to put the court on trial and attack its institutional legitimacy.

The governing party has already said it will respect the ruling of the courts regardless of which way it swings.

The MDC-Alliance has not issued such a statement but their recent past statements have shown they are poised to scandalise any institution that does not make them form the next government.

They scandalised ZEC before the elections and after. If they lose they will scandalise the bench because they are so conceited that they have only one acceptable result – one in which they are victorious. That’s a very tragic place for any party to put itself, let alone the Zimbabwean people.

So far public opinion has been so manipulated that support for ZEC has been massively depleted. We cannot allow further manipulation of public opinion in an effort to undermine the authority of the courts, which for all intents and purposes are the last bastion of our democracy. The intention of the Alliance is at cross-purposes with the will of the people of Zimbabwe.

The current opposition has picked fights with anyone who dared see differently. They picked a fight with SADC, AU, and the Elders, etc.  They even picked a fight with the British ambassador. It will be scandalous for the public to allow them to pick a fight with the Judiciary or even join such a bullyboy tactics. Let us all assert the Judiciary’s authority over this election process and outcome.

There is a party in our polity that’s not acceding to political accountability and its supporters are also in complicity with the breeding of this impunity through their dogmatic support of even the most brazen assaults on our decency and sense of propriety.

Our Judiciary needs public support whether it makes a pro-Government ruling or one against the Government.

There are also those that have argued in history that whipped public sentiment can actually shape the court’s decisions by making the Judiciary succumb to such manipulation.

The presence of such an effort to manipulate the Judiciary itself in that way cannot be totally excluded, but there is no evidence that our very professional Judiciary has determined cases on any other basis but law, facts and rules.

The presence of television cameras and their awareness of a global audience might change a few things but one hopes that it will not change the actual management of the case. Whatever the outcome of this case, there will be sensationalism and emotion.

Every decision made will be “controversial” because it will contrary to the views of a decent number of our citizens gravitating around their polar positions. Regardless of what verdict they come up with, our Judiciary is in a no-win place inasfar as the court of public opinion is concerned.

A famous thinker once said that at any given time, public opinion is chaos of superstition, misinformation and prejudice. It is this propaganda that is moulding public opinion and if institutions and organisations do not immediately transform in a way of being able to manage their information sharing processes, many an institution will be undermined through manipulation of public views and attitudes until they are paralysed.

Winston Churchill once said: “There is no such thing as public opinion, only published opinion.”

He was lucky to have lived in a different age. In this age public opinion is real and it has a court of its own. In there, the underdog always wins and the establishment is always wrong and guilty.

Source :

The Herald

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