Freedom of Press in Zimbabwe

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Pressing Change

Zimbabwe is by no means the worst in Africa, according to Keita. Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia are considered to be among the most repressive.  Rwanda is worsening in the run-up to its elections, where many journalists have fled the country and gone into exile. “Sometimes it is hard to understand what keeps journalists going when they have so many obstacles and they face so much danger,” said Keita. “They have a passion for their work. Even though they are beaten and arrested, they keep going. They have a conviction that their work is important.” Keita agrees that journalism is crucial for the growth of democracy in Africa. “Press freedom and the free flow of information is a requirement of a democratic society. An informed citizenry is better able to make good decisions on governance and to hold elected leaders accountable.  Journalism is essential to democracy, anywhere in the world. The press is the mechanism by which populations can hold governments accountable. It is a public watchdog, especially in places where there is little transparency. A free press is also important economically because it is an important factor in a country’s investment climate. Potential investors must see that there is a free press and clear and transparent information on governance.”

Glimmers of Hope

Keita does not want to give the impression that all is bad news regarding the press in Africa. “There are a few good stories,” he says, particularly with the growing role of new media. “Mozambique is one of the examples of how new media has empowered the press,” said Keita. “The food riots of September 2010 were a local story but bloggers and Mozambican ‘citizen journalists’ used photos taken with their cell phones to show police brutality. Largely thanks to their efforts, the Mozambican riots became a major international story.”  It is becoming more apparent that in the globalized world of internet and new media, censorship has to go far beyond simply excising a newspaper article, expelling a journalist or even shutting down a newspaper.  The internet, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, smart phones, digital cameras as well as short-wave radio networks have all helped spread the Zimbabwean story around the world and, crucially, back into the country. Mugabe works hard to control the flow of information, but in the globalized world of every growing information technology, it is becoming more difficult for him to succeed.

Zimbabwe has an estimated 100,000 internet users, a relatively high ratio for an African country. Several Zimbabwean journalists who are in exile have taken advantage of the new technology with online news services.  Many Zimbabweans access the internet from internet cafes in Harare and other major cities. Zimbabwe's secret police, the Central Intelligence Organization, have caught on to this and agents now haunt the cafes to hunt for anti-government activity. Although the state controls all AM and FM broadcasts by jamming broadcasts using equipment purchased from China, enterprising Zimbabwean journalists are using new media to pierce Mugabe's “radio curtain.”  Stations are sending news bulletins, featuring special reports critical of the Mugabe regime, via text message to thousands of cell phones in Zimbabwe. Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media are also used.

This use of new media is crucial for reaching Zimbabwe’s rural areas, where more than 60 percent of the population lives. The shortwave reception for these shows is often scratchy but these efforts all have devoted listenership.  Gerry Jackson produced Short Wave Radio Africa with a team of exiled Zimbabwean journalists in England and broadcast back into Zimbabwe. “Studio 7” is produced by the Voice of America in Washington, DC with exiled Zimbabwean journalists Ray Choto, Blessing Zulu and Sandra Nyaira, and it is relayed back into Zimbabwe. The "Voice of the People" is also produced in the Netherlands and sent back into Zimbabwe.

Although Mugabe has gone to great lengths to silence journalists, Zimbabwe's ongoing political, economic and humanitarian crisis succeeds in grabbing headlines around the world. Revelations of state torture and the chaos caused by corruption and economic mismanagement have been reported by brave Zimbabwean journalists, determined foreign correspondents and courageous lawyers.  In addition, the burgeoning developments in information technology are making it ever more difficult to effectively censor the press. In recent years the humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe has been one of the most widely covered African stories in the American and British press.  It is a dangerous job, but journalists are committed to their mission to report all the news because they believe it is essential to democracy, human rights and economic development.