Opinion: as we saw in Harare last week and Argentina, Uganda and Chile previously, the media have long been targeted in attempts to seize power by members of military forces

The takeover of state-owned Zimbabwean Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) by military forces in Harare last week signalled two things. Firstly, there’s the potential end of the presidency of Robert Mugabe. Secondly and more broadly, it showed the role and importance of the media in carrying out a coup d’état, the seizure and overthrow of the state, generally by members of military forces. 

For centuries, in different contexts and socio-economic circumstances, the media have been used as tools in attempts to seize power. In 18th century France, following the coup of 18 Brumaire, Napoleon took control of France and the French print media landscape, reducing the number of publications from 73 to four to more effectively censor their pages. The immediate appropriation of both radio and television was also a feature of more recent coups, such as those led by Idi Amin in Uganda in 1971 and Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973.

Research finds that media are pivotal during and after a coup d’état on many levels

Television, radio, and newspapers constitute ready-made channels of communication and well–established platforms for the influence, formation and manipulation of public opinion. They have a longer association than social media with Benedict Anderson’s "imagined community" comprising the nation-state and the nationalist ideals generally set out as underlying motivations behind the overthrow of previous governments. The Zimbabwean generals referred to the need to remedy a socio-economic crisis in the country as justification for their actions in their first television broadcast.

In times of a perceived social media dominance of communication formats, traditional state-run media therefore have particular relevance during a coup due to their national and regional rather than international target audience and the relative ease with which they can be taken over by forces challenging the status quo.

An "echo chamber" of propaganda

In Argentina’s six coups in the 20th century, it is the final one which best highlights the pivotal role played by the media, both during the overthrow itself and the seven year dictatorship that followed. In the early hours of March 24, 1976, the Argentine people learned of the ousting of Isabel Perón through the broadcast of a military march simultaneously on radio and television. This was followed by a speech by General Jorge Videla telling citizens that the country was under the control of the armed forces.

Over the weeks and months that followed, the media became fundamental in the regime’s circulation of its messages, attempts to establish authority, spread fear and justify its project to eradicate left-wing dissidence. Such was the importance of media to the regime that almost immediately after the coup, the military junta took control of state television and radio channels and formed partnerships with the owners of the country’s most popular daily newspapers.

Furthermore, the junta appropriated their means of media production - Papel Prensa, one of the largest manufacturers of newsprint in Latin America – and set out to create an "echo chamber" of official communications and dictatorship propaganda by creating a syndicate with the three newspapers that supported the regime. 

Challenging the official version

Despite the climate of fear and strict censorship that prevailed in Argentina at the time, certain sectors of the media contested the version of reality circulated by newspapers, television and radio channels controlled by or complicit with the regime. One example is Rodolfo Walsh, a writer of Irish descent called the father of investigative journalism in Argentina. He wrote "An Open Letter from a Writer to the Military Junta" on the first anniversary of the 1976 coup, denouncing the growing number of disappeared and detained dissidents in the country as well as the persecution of intellectuals and oppressive censorship. A day after he sent the letter to the offices of local newspapers and foreign correspondents in Buenos Aires, he also joined the list of the disappeared.

Some newspapers also defied state censorship to publish on topics that the junta tried to deny and/or silence. The Buenos Aires Herald, a small English-language newspaper for the British expat business community under the editorship of Hull-born Robert Cox, reported on the growing number of disappeared and widespread intimidation and detention of journalists. 

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Trailer for Messenger on a While Horse, Jayson McNamara’s 2017 documentary about Robert Cox and The Buenos Aires Herald during Argentina’s dictatorship

The Southern Cross, a small bilingual newspaper mostly for the Irish rural community in the outskirts of Buenos Aires, featured editorials by Fr. Federico Richards that were critical of the junta’s human rights abuses. 

While Cox was forced into exile in 1979 and Richards did suffer the intimidation of state agents, these newspapers and their editors that were so critical of the regime survived. It is widely believed that that these newspapers survived because of the expatriate communities that they represented, which the junta arguably did not want to anger, and the influential connections had by both editors within Argentine society and abroad. 

Traditional state-run media have particular relevance during a coup due to their national and regional audience and the relative ease with which they can be taken over 

Although the individuals and newspapers that challenged Argentina’s last dictatorship did not alone bring about its end, they did play a key role over time in contributing to and amplifying national and eventually international discontent at the junta’s human rights abuses until the regime eventually collapsed in 1983.

Research finds that media are pivotal during and after a coup d’état on many levels. They are used to announce the overthrow of the previous government, to communicate justifications for actions and future intentions as well as dominating, even manipulating, public opinion and creating a climate of fear. As the example of Argentina shows, the media can also play a critical role in resisting these new official messages.

In the weeks and months to come in Zimbabwe, the role of the media in the country’s changing political landscape will be as important to follow as the fate of Robert Mugabe. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ