Online journalism – an alternative way of practising journalism and a way of circumventing repressive media laws in Zimbabwe (long version)

Name of student:  Angela Makamure

Student Number:  0516749n

Level:  Mid-Career Honours in Journalism and Media Studies

Course:  Online Journalism

Lecturer:  Dinesh Balliah

Word Count:  3 458

Submission Date:  20 July 2012

Essay Topic:  Online journalism – an alternative way of practising journalism and a way of circumventing repressive media laws in Zimbabwe

 

The year 2002 marked the beginning of intense repression, serious media violationsand the silencing of mostly the private media outlets and their journalists in Zimbabwe.  With the introduction of a number of legislation meant to regulate the operations of the media, journalists found it difficult to expose corruption and to report on the socio-economic problems bedevilling the country such as the controversial election, the political violence and the disputed land reform programme among other pertinent issues. Though the private media could report on such issues, their freedom to do so was limited due to the repressive laws in place.  As a result, such issues were mainly reported in the state media and comments were made by government officials to support the controversial policies.  This scenario meant that ordinary citizens were misled and never got to understand what the implications of these policies were since the state media werepartisan and one-sided in their reporting. (The Media Institute of Southern Africa 2002 (MISA).

The Private media was under threat from different arms of government including the then Minister of Information, the police, the army among others – who accused them of reporting lies and exaggerating issues.  Various pieces of legislation soon followed and these have continued to muzzle the media a decade later despite a few recent reforms made in the industry.

The Public Order and Security Act (POSA), was enacted in January 2002.  This legislation criminalises reports that are considered aslowering the authority of the President and publication of false statements which may prejudice the state (MISA 2002). 

Another piece of legislation to follow was the most controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) enacted in March 2002. To date, AIPPA remains the greatest threat to press freedom and freedom of speech as it provides for the accreditation and registration of journalists and media houses respectively in order to practice and run a publication.  The accreditation and registration is handled and processed by the government -appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC) now known as the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) – a board created upon the enactment of AIPPA.  The ZMC has been accused of “intruding in the affairs of media houses and journalists”.  Further, AIPPA provides for stiffer penalties for journalists who write false news and abuse their “journalistic privilege and journalists can face upto 20 years imprisonment for infringing AIPPA (MISA 2002; Witchel 2005). 

Other acts introduced over the years limiting the exercise of journalistic autonomy and “grossly curtail(ing) basic civil and political liberties such as the freedom of expression and information” include the Criminal law (Codification and Reform Act) that has been used by public figures to target journalists, the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Interceptions of Electronic Communications Act (2007) (MISA 2011; Moyo 2011). 

According to Moyo (2011), such laws have a constraining impact on freedom of journalistic practice.

“For example, while AIPPA (contrary to its name) restricted easy access to government documents and information by the press, POSA essentially criminalized the journalism profession by a long custodial sentence and hefty fines for journalists who were likely to cause public disorder or publish stories that risked engendering the hatred of either the president or the acting president of the country.  Media freedom was further constrained by the use of threats, arrests, torture of journalists and the bombing of mostly private’s printing presses and offices (Moyo 2007).

According to the countries report of the MISA’s So This Is Democracy publication which documents media freedom and freedom of expression violations, Zimbabwe topped all the 11 Southern African Countries monitored for press freedom violationsin 2002.  Zimbabwe had the highest number of media violation alerts amounting to 120. Statistics show that about 10 Journalists were beaten, 37 detained, 15 threatened, 10 expelled, 22 censored, 18 legislation and three media houses bombed in Zimbabwe in 2002 (MISA 2002).  This trend has remained high since 2002 especially arrests, threats and detentions.  Though the year 2011 startedoff on a high note, it is sad that has seen a similar trend of media violations and clampdown can be seen.Arrests, detentions and threats have become the order of the day. 

According to the Zimbabwe Media Sustainability Index (MSI) IREX 2010 report, the Zimbabwe coalition government failed to produce tangible progress towards implementing legislative and institutional reforms in the media sector in Zimbabwe. IREX is a US-based non-profit organisation committed to international education in academic research, media development and offers technical assistance.  Every year, IREX provides an in-depth analysis of the conditions for independent media in 80 countries across the world through the Media Sustainability Index (MSI) (IREX)

“Instead, the government launched a fresh series of steps to increase its control over the media.  Zimbabweans’ constitutional rights to free expression still depend upon and are impeded by the whims of a government empowered by a plethora of repressive media laws that hinder free access to information,” the report noted.

During this volatile period stretching from 2002, sad developments were witnessed in the media field as some newspapers were forcibly shut down for violating AIPPA such as the Daily News and its sister paper, the Daily News on Sunday – seen as highly critical of thegovernment.  Some newspapers that closed down included the Tribune, the Daily Mirror and the Sunday Mirror.  Only a few privately owned weekly publications namely; the Standard, the Zimbabwe Independent and the Financial Gazette survived the media onslaught, while others folded.  This meant the main daily print media players left were state-controlled.  In broadcasting, a similar trend was already in existence as there were no private-owned radio or television stations, but just state-owned ones, which were purportedly used by the government for partisan political propaganda (Mawarire 2007: 5).

Because of the shrinkage in the media outlets, many journalists from the private-owned media outlets were left jobless.  Some journalists left the country to seek greener pastures, while others who were seen as a threat to the status quo, fled the country and settled in countries like South Africa, other African countries, the United Kingdom and the United State of America.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent and non-profit organisation dedicated to the global defence of press freedom, estimated that about 90 Zimbabwean journalists mostly the prominent ones, lived in exile in the countries listed above making them one of the largest groups of exiled journalists in the world in 2005 (CPJ).

“Some of these exiled journalists left as a direct result of political persecution, others because the government’s crackdown virtually erased opportunities in the independent press. Authorities have routinely detained and harassed journalists in the past five years to quash reporting on human rights, economic woes, and political opposition to the regime.  Repressive legislation such as the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act criminalizes journalism without a government license,” Elisabeth Witchel said in the CPJ report titled “Uprooted journalists struggle to keep careers, independent reporting alive”.

It was these developments especially the repressive media laws that prompted some exiled journalists to start up online publications to tell the Zimbabwean story in a free or less restricted way (Biriwasha 2011).

Some have started off blogs just to tell the Zimbabwean story and to counter state propaganda through online publications mostly based in the diaspora. 

Some of the publications born as a result of the media crisis in Zimbabwe include: the Zimonline, the New Zimbabwe.com andthe Zimbabwesituation.  In broadcasting, some foreign-based radio stations manned by exiled journalists and some have online versions were also born and these included:  SW Radio Africa, Voice of the People Radio and Voice of America’sStudio 7.  Most correspondents of these publications and radio stations are based in Zimbabwe.  Since the birth of these online publications and online radio stations, the number of freelance online journalists in Zimbabwe has grown over the years.

These publications enjoy “unfettered liberty” to publish what they want and as is normally the case in authoritarian environments, the internet in Zimbabwe continues to be the platform “through which most of the subaltern or anti-state discourses are articulated and exerted”.  (Chari, 2009, p. 23 in Domingo and Paterson 2011).

Abel Mutsakani, one of the journalists who was part of the team which startedZimonline told the CPJcorrespondent that he and his colleagues could not sitback when theDaily News was shut, but to start up an online publication.  Mutsakani served briefly as managing editor of the Daily News before it was shut down.

“As professionals we said ‘How do we continue?'” recalled Mutsakani,”I felt we had a choice. We could sit back in Zimbabwe, but that would be tantamount to surrender” Mutsakani said.

Instead, he and several colleagues went to South Africa and started the web publication, ZimOnline (CPJ).

Despite the reservations and ethical issues often raised on the credibility of online journalism, 10 years down the line, online journalism is growing from strength to strength and the online journalists are eking a living through corresponding for various online media outlets outside the country while providing an alternative source of news. 

Several freelance online journalists shared their experiences ranging from how they operate in Zimbabwe, how online journalism has transformed journalism in Zimbabwe tobenefits brought about by working for online publications.

Several journalists interviewed are in agreement that online journalism has become an alternative way of telling the Zimbabwean story without fear of reprisals and fear of the repressive laws,beatings, detentions and threats.  This state of affairs is similar to the situation in Kosovo where some organisations, including Western news organisations used the internet to circumvent government restrictions on reporting on the Kosovo crisis in the 1990s (Pavlik 2001: 33)

Bold Hungwe, a Zimbabwean online journalist based in Scotland said thedraconian media laws leading to the suffocation of media spaces meant journalists had to do something drastic in order to survive.

 “An oversupply of labour as the conventional media remained with only few players and the hostility the private media journalists received from the government meant journalists had to quickly device means to circumvent the ‘big brother’ and compensate for loss of income and traditional platforms by working for online foreign media organisations,” Hungwe said.

He said the internet became ‘THE’ alternative because it arguably became the safest, reliable and timely way of reporting the Zimbabwean story that continues to draw international headlines. 

Hungwe acknowledged that the developments in the ICT sector andthe mobile industry also accelerated the usage of online media as it afforded Zimbabwean journalists unlimited access to internet and the usage of smart phones that offer accessibility to multimedia platforms and wider reach at reasonably affordable rates.

“I also believe that some media organisations offering free training in Online Journalism have played a huge role in the development of online journalism in Zimbabwe for example the IIJ and Highway Africa.  These organisations introduced many journalists to the reliability of modern technologies which to many offers unlimited opportunities without direct government interference e.g. blogging, news websites,” he added.

He gave examples of locally hosted websites now in place to tell the Zimbabwean story such as tellzimbabwe.com and herzimbabwe.

Hungwe also said the use of the social media is fast growing with many Zimbabwean journalists reporting events as they happen through Twitter and Facebook.

A former Daily News reporter, who is now corresponding for two online publications in Europe and another in South Africa on a freelance basis,said he was grateful for the online publications.

“Just when I started journalism AIPPA immediately came into force joining other repressive laws inherited from the colonial era. Thanks to online journalism I managed to keep reporting about and from Zimbabwe,” the journalist said.

He said although the concept of online journalism is still backward in Zimbabwe, he is optimistic one day it would become full-fledged and modern.

“Most media houses think stories and photos from the printed editions should just be pasted on their website.  It does not work that way.  Online journalism is multimedia.  It is the future of journalism today, he said”.

The journalist said because there is more freedom in online journalism to write and report on critical issues without fear, many journalists are opting to freelance for online publications than work fulltime in traditional media houses.  He estimated that there were over 100 freelance online journalists in Harare (the capital city) alone and depending on an online publication one correspondents for, one can net about US2 000 per month.

Chido Sibalo, a journalist and Outreach officer at the Federation of African Media Women Zimbabwe (FAMWZ) said online journalism has indeed become an alternative source of news in Zimbabwe and a safer way of reporting and more rewarding for Zimbabwean journalists.

“Journalism will never be the same with the coming in of online publications.  Now journalists in Zimbabwe are smiling and are using latest technologies to tell the Zimbabwean story in a more vivid and colourful way unlike in traditional media,” Sibalo said.

“Technology has brought diversity and freedom to practice as a journalist is guaranteed and many journalists are putting social responsibility of telling the real story before casting the limelight on themselves,” she added.

Sibalo said her organisation is embracing and helping in developing online journalism in Zimbabwe by offering a new media training course to female journalists in the country so that they too can benefit from the fruits of online journalism.A series of trainings which started last month, are meant to equip female journalists with new media skills so they can report confidently and use online platforms as an alternative way of reporting and eking a living without any restrictions.  Twelve journalists are being trained under this programme.  So far a blog (famwzsocialmedia.blogspot) has been created where the female journalists post their various articles on topical issues in the country.

Another online journalist, Privilege Musvanhiri said online journalism is the way to go for most journalists as many have failed to be formally employed in traditional media owing to the increased number of media and journalism graduateschurned out by various colleges and universities every year. 

“The industry is very small and not everyone can be absorbed into the mainstream media.  Imagine a situation where there are more than 500 graduates from the country’s journalism schools per year, they cannot be absorbed in the industry, thus online journalism offered by various diaspora outlets have become an alternative,” Musvanhiri said. 

Another freelance journalists and photographer who preferred anonymity for fear of victimisation said the government cannot contain online content so one can post any stories without fear.

“You can use pseudonyms so they don’t really know who you are. But under such an arrangement you will have unlimited self- expression and can talk about real issues as they are.  Gone are the days when I would watch my back to see if somebody was following me.  I had to be vigilant and guard my notebook, camera and recorder in case a police officer could confiscate my tools of the trade,” she said.

Another journalist freelancing for various online diaspora outlets including Radio VOP shared his experience.

“I started online journalism at the time when there was no private daily publication in Zimbabwe.  There was no other medium I could work for except for the Herald (a state-owned broadsheet) whose reporting is straight-jacketed and does not allow you to tell the Zimbabwean story adequately.  I am a human rights journalist so if I were to join the Herald, I would suffer since the paper could not really offer me the opportunity to express myself,” he said.

He admits it has been a difficult experience for him and his colleagues to practice as a journalist within the traditional and conventional media in Zimbabwe, hence his decision to work for online publications.      

“It has been liberating and made me a free person to write for online publications.  I can actually send the same story to various publications with a few changes offcourse.  It would be difficult for me to stop freelancing for online publications and radio stations because it offers me better returnsand autonomy over my activities,” he added.

The Radio VOP journalist however said online journalism has its own challenges.

“Because we want to tell all those juicy and controversial stories, we cannot sell ourselves out by publishing our names.  Most of us are using pseudonyms to protect ourselves from persecution.  The disadvantage comes when I write a brilliant story and I cannot get credit because it is written under a false name.  I cannot make a name for myself in journalism because I am unknown and at the same time I cannot risk identifying myself because the stories we report on are perceived as controversial,” he said.

He said he was not even free to tell his interviewees that he worked for such online publications because they are often perceived as a threat to government, hence would not know how these interviewees would react if he identifies himself. 

He also expressed fear that although online journalism had potential for growth in Zimbabwe there will always be fear from readers and listeners of the credibility of news articles since a “guerilla” type of reporting is done.  Some people have even taken advantage of using anonymous names to send false stories.

“I hope online journalism will flourish in Zimbabwe and given the ICT revolution, online journalism should be the in-thing but currently this is not the case,” he said.

No doubt, online journalism is fast making waves in Zimbabwe and is fast redefining the way journalism is practised.  In light of the continued clampdown on journalists, Zimbabwean journalists have found a safe haven for free expression and free speech and the only alternative and tool for circumventing repressive media laws in online platforms.  Despite the recent positive developments in the media industry, where some print publications and two private radio stations have been licensed, many believe these are just but cosmetic changes – hence would rather not be associated with them as the status quo characterised by continued repression is likely to remain.  Legislative changes have not been effectively implemented; hence it’s premature to celebrate the developments.  MISA-Zimbabwe noted that government officials continuously used the criminal defamation laws in an effort to frustrate investigative journalism and 2011 saw a ‘flurry’ of lawsuits being filed against independent newspapers (MISA 2011).  In its statement on the licensing of one of the private radio stations, Zimpapers’ Talk Radio’s Star FM, MISA-Zimbabwe chapter welcomed the development cautiously because it is owned by the controversial Zimpapers seen as partial and is government linked, hence its independence is in doubt.

“While such an historic development should elicit jubilation from information-starved marginalised communities in Zimbabwe, citizens can only cautiously welcome this new entrant into the airwaves.  The issue of its intrinsic umbilical ties to its proprietor, given Zimpapers documented partisanship, also engenders doubts on its independence,” the MISA Zimbabwe statement read in part.

 Some have even referred to the changes as “new wine in old bottles”.  It is against this background marked by doubts and suspicion in the conventional media that online journalism can truly be an alternative form of news for information-starved citizens.  There is therefore potential for online journalism in Zimbabwe.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

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  2. Mabweazara, H.M., (2011). The Internet in the Print Newsroom:  Trends, Practices and Emerging Cultures in Zimbabwe. In Domingo, D. &and , C. (eds.). Making Online News Volume 2.  Newsroom Ethnography in the Second Decade of Internet Journalism (chapter 5). New York:  Peter Lang.  Downloaded on July 15 from http://www.makingonlinenews.net/volume2/
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10.  Witchel, E. (2005). Community for Protection of Journalists (CPJ). Uprooted journalists struggle to keep careers, independent reporting alive. Accessed on July 15 from(http://cpj.org/reports/2005/10/zim-da-fall05-2.php)

 

 

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