By JOHN CHIMUNHU
Now Daily Analysis
The recent threats against bloggers and users of social media by Zimbabwean government leaders, Zanu PF and MDC-T parties are a serious cause for concern. Coupled with a deteriorating environment due to high tariffs of up to $2 per hour and poor connectivity, the situation calls for urgent action by the international community to make it clear that internet repression, threats and aggression against social media users will not be tolerated.
The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 19, states that freedom of expression is a guaranteed right. This is buttressed by the Constitution of Zimbabwe, which states in Part 2, Section 61 that freedom of expression and freedom of the media are inviolable rights.
“Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information…Every person is entitled to freedom of the media…,” the Constitution says.
International best practice in countries such as the United States which have a longer history of internet usage also shows that these rights can be enjoyed without any problems to the economy, national sovereignty or national security as claimed by some ignorant leaders in Zimbabwe. It is therefore essential that government, political parties, policy-makers, legislators and service providers do not infringe upon these fundamental freedoms in carrying out their duties.
As Paula Dobriansky, United States Under-Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs stated in 2006, “An internet that is accessible and can be freely used can expose corruption, encourage transparency, and foster participation in the political process. It can also advance education, health and economic development. The internet is, in short, a crucial means of empowerment.”
The Zimbabwean President’s spokesman, George Charamba, the Zanu PF spokesman Simon Khaya Moyo, the police Commissioner-General Augustine Chihuri and the MDC-T president Morgan Tsvangirai have made some very strong remarks effectively banning the use of social media by those who operate under them. This has had a terrible chilling effect on media bloggers and users of social media in Zimbabwe, effectively streamlining public participation in national issues as people are afraid they are being watched when they go online and may be targeted in future.
Charamba made some very serious threats and allegations against bloggers in January 2016 after one blog, ZimEye, published a false report that the President had collapsed and died. The threats are quite serious and have alarmed a lot of bloggers, coming in the wake of a 2014 resolution by the ruling Zanu PF party to ban the use of the internet by Zimbabweans. Khaya Moyo has stated that Zanu PF members are banned from interacting on social media. Chihuri has similarly banned police officers from joining social media and indicated that those who are already members are being watched by the state and may face consequences. Tsvangirai banned MDC-T members from using WhatsApp and becoming members of Facebook groups, with those already connected being ordered to terminate such membership. Numerous, vibrant opposition voices have been shut down as a result, further fuelling speculation that Tsvangirai is on Mugabe’s payroll.
Zimbabweans are definitely alarmed by these developments, especially because they are not getting any support from the political opposition, which has MPs in Parliament. These legislators should be at the forefront of fighting for the rights and basic freedoms of the people to express themselves through the convenient medium of the internet but they have become part of the problem, just to protect themselves.
Zimbabwe needs urgent all-stakeholder dialogue on the use of the internet. Such a discussion is overdue, to dispel alarmist claims by some local state and party officials that giving ordinary people internet access would necessarily cause them to rise up against the government and the party leadership. Internet repression has become the new frontier for dictators worldwide and many are alarmed by developments in Zimbabwe. Independent broadcasting for non-members of the ruling party is banned and private publishing is severely restricted. This means that a vast number of people get more credible news through media websites, many of which are owned by ordinary people rather than government, business conglomerates and political parties as is the case with the mainstream media.
However, a rising generation of Zimbabweans have seized the opportunities presented by the internet. Thousands of media blogs and websites have been set up, providing coverage of different topics, from business and politics to fashion and entertainment. There is a huge unmet need for training, though, to stem unethical behaviour and make the output more professional, consistent, ethical and effective.
Media practitioners find it very disturbing that 2015 was marked by the Zimbabwean government’s refusal to meet the International Telecommunications Union’s June 17 deadline to move away from analogue to digital broadcasting. The former minister of media, information and broadcasting services Jonathan Moyo misinformed parliament that the government was working on a new deadline, but this has proved to be typical Zanu PF promises and lies. Those who have been waiting for broadcasting licences for decades are certain that independent broadcasting will never be allowed until the current regime goes.
For this reason, calls have been made on the international community, and in particular the ITU, to consider immediate sanctions against Zimbabwe. This could include a complete telecommunications ban or indefinite blackout on Zimbabwe until the regime of Robert Mugabe abides by international agreements to democratize the airwaves.
Digitalization would have made it possible for up to 85 new radio stations and 21 television channels to go on air, creating thousands of new media and related jobs.
Blogging has become widely used in Zimbabwe to fill the information gap created by the government’s failure to free the airwaves and open up the media environment to all players. Smaller online publishers, especially in the Diaspora where connections are better and tariffs are lower, are taking advantage of recent advances in technology to market their presence with a mixture of savvy gossip and real news.
The internet has become the only source of credible news for a large section of the population. Official statistics show that only 15 percent of households own a television, while 85 percent of the people have used a cell phone in the past year, many of the phones being capable of accessing the internet. Even if more people owned televisions, crude censorship is a hallmark of Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation news.
Unfortunately, Zimbabweans will not be able to fully enjoy recent advances in internet technology. The home audience remains constrained by limitations on internet usage ranging from poor connectivity and high tariffs to monitoring and threats by state agents. Wi Fi rates of $2 per hour being used compare to heavily repressed countries like Cuba. In a country where more than 90 per cent of the population are unemployed, many choose to buy a loaf of bread than to go online.
Internet repression remains official Zimbabwean government policy, affirmed by the ruling Zanu PF party’s leaders at their annual congress in December 2014. Among Zanu PF’s resolutions was one to limit or ban internet usage in Zimbabwe, which goes against the global objective approved by the United Nations to expand access to the internet as a way of increasing the flow of information and reducing poverty, especially among marginalized groups such as women and youths.
Serious bloggers encounter numerous problems in Zimbabwe. Many endure harassment and threats, not only from the government, but from opposition officials and private companies. The opposition MDC-T has banned its members from participating in online groups and ordered some closed. This was a major step backwards for a movement that is shunned by the state-run mainstream media and can only send its messages through social media. Some have even suggested that the discredited MDC-T is fulfilling Zanu PF wishes to limit internet usage.
Bloggers have formed the African Media Bloggers Association (AMBA-Zimbabwe) to represent their interests after realising that the existing trade unions and media NGOs are either compromised or do not cater to this growing sector. So far, AMBA-Zimbabwe has recorded significant progress in implementing its strategic plan. They have set up a Facebook group, where many members have been promoting their blogs.
Because of this platform, many previously unknown bloggers have emerged and are doing a great job of showcasing their work. Some even rival huge media companies in terms of output and influence.
Going forward, bloggers are working on hosting the first Bloggers Festival in 2016, where bloggers will celebrate the success of their websites through awards. There is evidently a need for more training for members in terms of raising funds, online production, ethics, marketing, law, entrepreneurship and making money from an online business as well as digital security and access to information.
However, bloggers in Zimbabwe and on the African continent struggle to keep focussed on their goals because of the setbacks they keep getting over licensing, threats to physical security and sustained state campaigns to discredit bloggers and undermine their work.
Media censorship by Mugabe’s regime has driven many of the country’s most talented journalists, broadcasters and publishers into exile. It is a scandal that 36 years after independence, Zimbabweans still have to register media companies and operate from outside the country to escape government censorship and the poverty that it brings.
Presidential spokesman Charamba’s claims that digital publishers were promoting falsehoods in order to generate views for their websites and earn commissions from news clients like Google smack of terrible ignorance about the economics of blogosphere. If Zimbabwean website owners just wanted busier online traffic they could simply publish pornography. More people out there would be happier to see pretty girls than an ageing dictator who has ruined his country.
Charamba and other regime figures are obviously unhappy to see people enjoying the freedom of expression which this regime has banned and criminalized.
Government media repression is blamed for the country’s economic and political problems. Without accurate, credible and verifiable information, business and political leaders cannot make correct decisions in times of economic crisis like the one Zimbabwe is facing.
However, as Mugabe and his cronies have discovered, in the modern age, trying to control information by banning journalists and media outlets is really a waste of time and resources because the truth always seems to find a way of coming out.
The Mugabe regime tightly controls the media through selective licensing, high licence fees and taxes which the regime’s cronies are not required to pay and threats of arrest and even murder of are independent and state media journalists who do not toe the line. Foreign journalists are banned, with only a few being allowed to operate after being thoroughly vetted by security officials.
Censorship is regressive, archaic and uncivilized. It belongs to the dark ages that progressive societies are trying to escape through better technology and better ideas. It is incredible that Mugabe and his cronies can invite foreign investors and donors while at the same time banning journalists. Investors want accurate information and they know they can only get that from an unfettered media, not state propaganda departments. Without a free press, there can be no progress.
Claims by Zanu PF that the party in power should control information for security and ideological reasons are fallacious. Ownership is not the issue. One only has to look at how robust Nigeria’s state-owned media is, or the state-run BBC, Voice of America and Radio Japan. Journalists must be allowed to do their jobs, even in situations where the state owns the broadcasting and publishing infrastructure and resources. In fact, in some Scandinavian countries journalists and artists are entitled to state pensions when they retire, but they are not compelled to worship the ruling establishment or support any particular idea during their working days.
Zimbabwe is now more than 40 years behind other nations in terms of media development. This had heralded the emergence of websites like Now Daily, but media practitioners are still constrained by threats to their security and businesses.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, censorship and control were the hallmarks of Rhodesian government media policy. It is, therefore, incredible that Zimbabwean politicians can talk of democracy when the media is emasculated by the ruling party. Media freedom is one of the main freedoms that mark a democracy. Sadly, it doesn’t exist in Zimbabwe.
It is a disaster that broadcasters and publishers have been forced to operate from outside Zimbabwe’s borders for fear of being killed by state operatives. Those who have refused to leave the country voluntarily despite the dangers of working in Zimbabwe face daily challenges, including uncertain incomes.
The current situation is not sustainable both for the government and the media. No one can expect someone in far-off London, Washington or the Netherlands to report accurately on Zimbabwe. A lot of glorified rumours are being published and passed on as news, which is terrible. The government is to blame for this negative reportage, which is now more pervasive than real news.
An alternative strategy is that journalists should not take the gap but confront the dictatorship with accurate news about its excesses. This is dangerous as many discovered following the abduction and forced disappearance of Itai Dzamara, an activist and publisher of the News Leader, a fledgling investigative news website.
I have been arrested 12 times on the job. They have tried to kill me countless times. My equipment has been seized. I have been tortured, assaulted, insulted and made to suffer financially. State operatives and even opposition officials have done everything to drive me out of Zimbabwe and out of business. They have done everything to discredit my work and my personality. But I would like to assure all concerned that I am not quitting because the Zimbabwean story is in Zimbabwe, not in some comfortable foreign capital. I would really like to pay tribute to our viewers who have stood by us despite the disruptions that we experience regularly. Zimbabwean bloggers need financial help, equipment, training and other support to turn this spark into a real fire. Otherwise, we are determined not to turn back because we are blogging for democracy, blogging for freedom and a lot of people depend on us.
- John Chimunhu is Amba-Zimbabwe president and executive chairman of Now Media Holdings, which runs the Now Daily blog reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers across the globe.
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