Under the current inclusive government press freedom in Zimbabwe remains restricted, even today. Journalists are often facing consequences for independent or critical reports. At the same time, social networks and new online media offer space for a broad participation of the civil society for the shaping of public opinion, as was proven earlier this year in Northern Africa. Below, you find a drafting of the current situation in Zimbabwe.
The following article was presented on 3 Aug 2011 in Berlin, Germany by Golden Maunganidze, editor of the Masvingo Mirror newspaper in Zimbabwe. The event was supported by the International Institute for Journalism (IIJ) and moderated by Frank Gries from the German NGO INISA (Initiative Southern Africa) e.V.
New Social Media Networks And Press Freedom In Zimbabwe
The media in Zimbabwe has always been under stern hands that have been keen to suppress independent voices.
Given a number of repressive laws put across by “media hangmen” keen to silence particularly the independent press, the coming in of the social media has not helped any matters.
Internet has managed to become a global gate which has amplified demands for freedom of expression, facilitated vibrant and open discussions on a wide range of topics and connected citizens with each other around the world.
The coming in of the new forms of social media has sparked tremendous debate and amplified phobia in the hearts and minds of those who feel the media has enough arsenal to wipe out their political reign.
It has always remained debatable as to whether the new media networks can be of major help in news dissemination and press freedom under today’s authoritarian governments and Zimbabwe today presents a classic example of how even personal sentiments on social networks can also be considered a crime.
Zimbabwe, and indeed the whole of Africa is facing a critical transformative moment in its technological history.
To say what happened in North Africa where masses used social media networks to disseminate news is likely to happen in Zimbabwe might be an over statement considering that research has shown that only around 1.5 million Zimbabweans out of 14 million claim to have some kind of internet access.
Internet literacy is still very limited to the few privileged in the society. Access to the internet, has proved to be largely an urban phenomenon and a preserve for the elite.
Besides theoretical interpretations of events, we have also seen people being arrested for posting information on either their facebook walls or that of their friends that by itself a threat to press freedom and clear testimony that any form of media in Zimbabwe is not welcome.
Vikas Mavhudzi from Zimbabwe’s second largest city in Bulawayo who posted a message on face book became the social media’s first victim in the country.
He was arrested and charged with ‘advocating or attempting to take-over government by unconstitutional means’ after he posted on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s wall page on February 13, 2011.
“I am overwhelmed, I don’t know what to say Mr. PM. What happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”
After being held for more than 35 days by the police, he was released on bail.
Another victim is a Zimbabwean politician and former opposition legislator Job Sikhala who was recently arrested for posting a message on facebook.
Mavhudzi and Sikhala’s arrests do not show that the government is only prepared to quash divergent voices on social networks but it also proved that technologies like the internet and mobile phones are useful for spying on private citizens.
Zimbabweans therefore, seem to be generally afraid of being arrested or tortured by the police for things they can avoid. It is therefore against this background that we believe it will take time before the people can be ready to speak up through these open channels.
There is now a lot of self-censorship on the platforms that have been reduced to be “Mickey Mouse platforms” where no serious issues can be discussed.
Those who use the social media have mostly resorted to strictly ‘social’ business and those who are really courageous to share information via new social media networks are struggling to have enough desired audience.
While social media has helped to improve press freedom in other countries, for varying reasons, the situation is totally different in Zimbabwe where in addition to “media hangmen” the cost of internet gadgets is still very expensive as compared to an average civil servant’s salary pegged currently at $250 against the Poverty Datum Line of $500.
Citizens may be reluctant to use social media for protest purposes because they think they may be under surveillance and recently, civic society leaders posted messages on facebook urging a mass protest that flopped simply because no one cared to take the message serious while others did not have access.
Although I am not a prophet, I am convinced that events taking place in Zimbabwe show that in the future, the internet, and thus social media, is likely to play a greater role in promoting press freedom. But is it the much awaited Messiah for the Zimbabwean media landscape that has been in very unsafe hands for sometime now?
With the current political leadership, press freedom will not be received on a silver platter as the government is likely to pass laws even to criminalize and regulate social media.
In June last year Econet Wireless, the country’s largest mobile phone operator, faced a closure threat for allegedly allowing the Movement for Democratic Change to campaign on its network through a toll-free interactive service.
Recently, Zanu PF stalwart and Minister in the Inclusive Government, Herbet Murerwa brew a shocker at the Africa Day commmemoration in Harare arguing he was technophic and was convinced the West was using the internet to fight regimes and effect regime change.
Minister of Finance Tendai Biti also came in with an astounding revelation that only 10% of Cabinet Ministers were ICT literate exposing how the country is far from aknowledging and taking seriously the social media.
As the world becomes more and more dynamic, I see old school politicians trapping themselves in a very difficult situation where they will not be able to temper with the press freedom. Murerwa confessed that the big guys are struggling to deal with new technological challenges and that facebook has come to destroy – of course he was saying this in relation to events which were taking place in North Africa.
Since the inception of the inclusive government in 2009 after a decade long political crisis, a lot of reforms need public participation like the constitution making process, the national healing process, MP feedback meetings, pending elections debate and never ending dialogue to resolve outstanding issues in the inclusive government.
All because of afore-mentioned problems, it has become largely impossible for public input through the social media like you have in Germany where MPs are asked questions through social platforms.
In conclusion, let me be honest enough to say that I see press freedom as a package which comes together with new social media networks in Africa and Zimbabwe in particular; however, a lot needs to be done by both government and the citizens for these so called networks to become effective.