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Digital media technology and democratisation in Zimbabwe



Dr Reward Mushayabasa

BEFORE discussing how Zimbabweans appropriate digital media spaces to promote democratisation, it is pertinent to examine the reasons why activists are migrating from legacy to digital media.

Digital media are a by-product of the new technological revolution. Larry Diamond (2010) termed digital media a liberation technology because of the ease with which most citizens weaponise it to create democratic spaces for debate and commentary. It enables users to create and distribute content on social media and online news platforms.

Digital media come with some inherent advantages compared to legacy media. One of them is that they offer users the latitude to communicate with each other with minimum interference from the filtering processes by the gatekeepers (Hansen, 2020). The other advantage is the relative ease of access and usability.

The promise of the information communication technology (ICT) revolution is that more information will seamlessly lead to greater opportunities for collective action and progressive change.

From this perspective, the proliferation and abundance of information provides individuals who have access to ICTs with an unprecedented number of options to exercise voice and influence in political processes. Thus, the argument goes, ICTs have great potential to enable collective mobilisation and to broaden political participation (Menocal, 2021, np)

These points were confirmed by some of the respondents during the interviews. One of the respondents, a Zimbabwean academic and post-doctoral scholar based at a university in South Africa, said that during the first 20 years after independence, the State made every effort to control print and electronic media, adding that:.

People later started to look for alternative spaces like digital media. Digital media is popular because it is cheaper and more accessible. In addition, it provides an element of anonymity (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM21,19/10/2020)

There was a consensus among the respondents that the digital media are a game changer, especially in countries under authoritarian rule where citizens feel asphyxiated by the State’s control of the mass media. The respondents believe that under these circumstances, digital media empower citizens and open democratic spaces for counter narratives.

This point was underscored by one of the respondents, a Zimbabwean national working for an international development agency in Eastern Africa (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM41, 26/01/2021). The respondent said:

Digital media are important in our national politics. The political landscape has changed in recent years. The State-owned media’s monopoly has been eroded. In addition, the demographics of our population has shifted over the years. Youths now constitute the majority and are politically active in digital media spaces. These spaces are important for democracy and have rekindled our politics (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM41, 26/01/2021).

This respondent’s point was supported by a veteran Zimbabwean journalist now based in Johannesburg, South Africa (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM34, 23/01/2021). He said digital media were a game changer for contentious politics in Zimbabwe.

There is a huge difference between where we are today and where we were yesterday. For instance, during apartheid in South Africa, media organisations were banned from naming the African National Congress (ANC) and its leaders. We also had a similar situation in Rhodesia after the banning of the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu).

The ban was later lifted in 1978 after the signing of the Internal settlement agreement (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM34, 23/01/2021)

From the above discussion, we can see that there was a consensus among respondents on the pivotal role played by digital media in promoting political activism. Most respondents agreed that digital media opened spaces for political commentary and debate.

One of the respondents, a Zimbabwean post-graduate student based in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Dubai, (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF16, 29/01/2021) said digital media offered citizens the latitude to participate in political activism without fear. She said:

Now if something happens . . . people can express their opinions and emotions. For some people it is a new way to express themselves behind hidden identities to avoid State surveillance (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF16, 29/01/2021).

The respondent’s point was supported by a former managing director of a state-owned media organisation in Zimbabwe (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM23, 19/09/2020). He said the advent of new technologies had a far-reaching global impact, like the former Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev’s, perestroika (reconstruction) and glasnost (openness), adding that:

Digital media have opened up societies.

In the age of digital technologies, no one enjoys sole monopoly over media ownership. An individual has as much reach as a major newspaper stable (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM23, 19/09/2020).

A former Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) radio manager (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF35, 06/11/2020) added that there are several reasons why people have migrated to digital media spaces in recent years. She said:

Zimbabweans are fatigued by the hunger for authentic news in real time. The digital spaces also offer counter narratives which are not readily available in the mainstream media (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF35, 06/11/2020).

The respondent’s sentiments were echoed by another respondent, who was working for a quasi-governmental organisation in Zimbabwe (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF36, 12/10/2020). She said that, compared with five years ago, there was a wider use of digital media in the country, adding:

Digital media give citizens a voice.

As a result of digital media, people have gained a lot of confidence in articulating what they want.

However, the current media environment in Zimbabwe is polarised and skewed. That scenario leaves the rural majority without a voice. For most people in the rural areas, digital media are a luxury. Under the current economic challenges, the people are more concerned with putting food on their tables (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re; XXF36, 12/10/2020).

Karekwaivanane and Msonza (2021) concur with the argument that digital media technologies are beyond the reach of most people under the current situation in Zimbabwe, which is characterised by high unemployment and low economic growth.

Given the prevailing socioeconomic hardships, many Zimbabweans are focused on meeting their basic needs rather than digital rights. Issues such as SIM card registration, facial recognition and online disinformation are not given the attention they deserve. At the same time there is limited realisation that the continued suppression of civic space and curtailment of digital rights leaves Zimbabweans limited in their ability to contest political corruption, fuel and food prices, or abuse of civil liberties and political freedom (Karekwaivanane and Msonza, 2021, p56).

As mentioned previously, my research recruited respondents from a wide spectrum of Zimbabwean citizens and one of the respondents interviewed for this study is a veteran broadcaster and former head of a private radio station (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF13, 05/10/2020). The respondent believes that the digital media give a voice to the voiceless. She offered a more nuanced response, adding:

Digital media are doing quite well. They are offering a great service. The government is finding it very difficult to control the digital media. That is why it freaks out very often. However, the main problem is the cost of data. It is huge. In addition, not all people have access to digital media. The majority living in the rural areas have no access to digital technologies (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXF13, 05/10/2020).

Bosch, et al; (2020) concur with this respondent’s views. The notion of a digital divide is still a major challenge in most developing countries in Africa like Zimbabwe and “permeates and influences the levels of participation on social media platforms” (Bosch, et al; 2020, p361). As a result, only citizens with access to new technologies are able to communicate using digital media “at the expense of the disconnected and poor citizens” (Ibid.). On the other hand, a Zimbabwean post-doctoral media scholar based in Namibia (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM29, 01/09/2020) criticised the content of most posts in digital media spaces. Although digital media help to amplify and circulate dissenting voices, most of the content lacks reflexivity.

In recent times we have seen the amplified use of digital media spaces as platforms for free speech and expression. The digital media spaces are very active and vibrant platforms for circulation of ideas. However, most of the posts in these spaces lack reflexivity (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM29, 01/09/2020).

The respondent raised a valid point. Some of the posts in digital media spaces lack reflexivity. There is a need for more light and less heat in the communicative ecology of the digital spaces. We need more robust debate in digital media spaces to promote transformative change. Dahlberg (2001) argues that:

. . . a cursory examination of the thousands of diverse conversations taking place every day online and open to anyone with Internet access seems to indicate the expansion on a global scale of the loose webs of rational-critical discourse that constitute what is known as the public sphere (p1).

Dahlberg (2001) further argues that an ideal public sphere should meet six normative benchmarks, and these are as follows: “autonomy from state and economic control; exchange and critique of criticisable moral-practical validity claims, reflexivity, ideal role-taking, sincerity, discursive inclusion and equality” (Ibid.). This chapter argues that digital media meet some of Dahlberg’s (2001) criteria for a public sphere. In addition, Mhiripiri and Mutsvairo (2013) argue that digital media meet some of the normative benchmarks of “a traditional public sphere” (Mhiripiri and Mutsvairo, 2013, p411). They add:

Certainly, citizens’ ability to freely post stories on Facebook or provide comments on online stories shares the same characteristics of the traditional public sphere (Ibid.)

In his seminal work, The End of Power, Moises Naim (2013) argues that the new media are a game changer and create opportunities for more interactive communication among individuals and communities. He added that these new technologies “are tools – and to have an impact, tools need users, who in turn need goals, direction, and motivation” (Ibid, p14). Naim’s (2013) argument is ample proof of the potency of digital media and “shows that new media environments empower individuals and communities to mobilise for change by creating and distributing content” (Milton and Mano, 2017, p184).

Over the past decade, digital media has transformed the communicative ecologies of social activists. Examples abound on how activists have used digital spaces to promote their causes to much wider audiences. Using the Moldova protests as a case study, Morozov (2009) referred to the use of digital media in the European country as the ‘Twitter Revolution’. Protesters in Moldova used Twitter “to challenge pending parliamentary elections” (Bennett and Segerberg, 2013). African countries have not been spared by this rising global tide of digital media activism.

During the same period, we witnessed revolutions unravelling in the Maghreb countries of Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, with the help of digital media activism. In recent years, we have seen the citizenry in Sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries, such as Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kenya, Uganda, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, using digital spaces to clamour for democratic change in their countries.

In principle, ICTs can profoundly democratise the public sphere because they make it possible for everyone, not just those perceived to be elites, to contribute to and shape ongoing debates. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have upended the relationship between political authority and popular will.

The function of curating content has shifted from traditional mediating mechanisms or ‘gatekeepers’ – such as newsroom editorial boards, journalists, or political parties – towards individuals and their social networks. In theory, this flattening of information hierarchies has the potential to make the political arena more open and accessible, expose people to more diverse viewpoints and enable them to connect across time and space at a speed and scale that was unimaginable before (Menocal, 2021, np).

In terms of positionality, this study covers the period from 2016 to 2022. The choice of that period is deliberate and significant because that was the year when social movements like #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka/Sijikile were formed during the Mugabe era. Since 2016, there has been an upsurge in the

number of Zimbabwean activists using digital spaces as a site for manufacturing resistance to the dominant narratives in the country (Mare, 2020a). In recent years, during the Mnangagwa era, whose nomenclature is variously described as the ‘Second Republic’ or the ‘New Dispensation’, we have witnessed more social movement players like #ZimbabweLivesMatter and #DemLoot joining the fray.

On the other hand, the State has used two key strategies in response to the upsurge in digital media activism. The first strategy involved the use of the State repressive apparatus to clamp down on political activism, while the second strategy included the appropriation of digital media spaces by using trolls and bots.

A former prominent member of the ruling Zanu PF party, who decided to maintain anonymity during the interview, said the political elites in Zimbabwe were aware of the potency of digital media. He said that a few days before the ousting of Mugabe on 17th November 2017, there was a blackout in the mainstream media. Social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, became one of the main news sources from which people could access information about the ‘military-assisted-transition’ negotiations between Mugabe and the military junta.

The appropriation of digital media during the ousting of the late former President Robert Mugabe from power in November 2017, was well timed and deliberate. It was part of the overall military coup strategy.

Some activists were used by the military as proxies to help in mass mobilisation and give the coup a ‘civilian face’. In recent times we have seen the political elites deploying bots and trolls on social media platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, to manufacture legitimacy for the ruling party (WhatsApp Telephone Interview with Anonymous Respondent XXM44, 12/09/2020).

There might be some grain of truth in these sentiments.

According to Zamchiya (2020), some senior Zanu PF officials were aware of the waning political fortunes of the former President, Robert Mugabe, before he was ousted by the 17th November 2017 coup. The officials mobilised cross-party support and reached a pact with the MDC-T party. The main opposition party was promised “an internationally supervised free and fair election or a transitional government involving both MDC and Zanu PF” (Zamchiya, 2020, p4).

However, after the successful ousting of Mugabe, Zanu PF reneged on its earlier promises to the MDC-T party.

The events above underscore Nyamnjoh’s (2005) argument that digital media activism underpins African core values of “solidarity, interconnectedness and interdependence” (Nyamnjoh, 2005, p16). Nyamnjoh’s (2005) argument is valid, and it might explain why, in Zimbabwe both the ruling Zanu PF party and the main opposition MDC Alliance, weaponize digital media spaces as a site of political activism.

Zanu PF uses digital media activism to legitimate their political hegemony, while MDC Alliance uses it as a site for political resistance (Mare, 2020a).

Against this backdrop, the study of digital media activism as a site of contestation in the struggle for democracy is now more relevant than it was previously in Zimbabwe. This study seeks to answer questions on the effectiveness of digital media in the country. For this study, respondents from a wide spectrum of Zimbabwean professionals were interviewed.

The consensus among the respondents was that the digital media are a game changer in the country’s contentious politics. One of the respondents, a Zimbabwean foreign correspondent based in Harare (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re; XXM9, 26/10/2020) said that, over the past few years, digital media have fuelled digital activism.

Digital media activism is growing at a phenomenal rate. There is a lot of it. It is turning out to be a major avenue for activism. It helps to reach more audiences. In a nutshell, digital media activism helps in terms of mobilisation and creating awareness. It is easier for activists to reach a groundswell of support for their causes among other citizens.

For instance, the #ZimbabweLivesMatter hashtag movement grew like a wildfire in digital spaces and helped to put the Zimbabwean political crisis into the international spotlight. It is now difficult for authorities to silence citizens. Digital media help people to break the barriers of oppression (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re; XXM9, 26/10/ 2020).

This argument was supported by a prominent newspaper publisher, who is a veteran journalist with several years’ experience in both colonial and postcolonial Zimbabwe (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM38, 08/10/2020). The respondent believes that the digital media empower citizens, adding that:

The people of Zimbabwe have taken to digital media activism in a big way. This comes against the recent backdrop of shrinking democratic space. Digital media activism offers citizens the opportunity to vent their anger and frustrations against the declining standards of living and basic freedoms. But whether this achieves anything, it is very debatable (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM38, 08/10/2020).

The respondent’s ambivalence is understandable, especially when viewed from the vantage point of Mnangagwa’s new political dispensation. During the early days of his administration, Mnangagwa promised to repeal of some of the draconian legislation against freedom of speech in Zimbabwe.

Some of the laws like Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (AIPPA) “have either been repealed or remain under parliamentary review” (Mutsvairo, 2021, p77). As a result of these political overtures, “more citizens are now accessing platforms, and in comparison to the Robert Mugabe era, digital dissent is being tolerated” (Ibid.).

However, some respondents disagreed, and they offered a more nuanced perspective on the effectiveness of digital media activism. For example, a former editor of a State- owned newspaper (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re; XXM39, 20/11/2020) said digital media activism had been vibrant in the last few years. He added:

We have witnessed digital media activism driven by politics. It was quite effective towards the build-up to the November 17, 2017 (military-assisted transition). We also saw a lot of digital media activism in the streets of Harare on August 1, 2018 (during the post-election demonstrations and shootings of civilians by soldiers). However, some of the digital media social movements fizzled out without bringing any tangible results (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM39, 20/11/2020).

On the other hand, other respondents felt that digital media spaces are a contested terrain. The government has total control of these spaces, both directly and indirectly, for example, by using internet shutdowns and changing the regulatory framework for the Internet Service-Providers (ISPs).

However, a chief executive officer of a media advocacy organisation in Zimbabwe (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM22, 7/10/2020) said these repressive measures by the State do not stop people from freely expressing themselves.

He said: Subalterns are very savvy and know how to circumnavigate around State control of the digital media spaces. They have found digital spaces which are not under control of government. In addition, a lot of digital media activism is fuelled by Zimbabweans in the diaspora. (Online Interview with Anonymous Respondent re: XXM22, 07/10/2020).

The respondent above has raised a valid point. This study found there was some tension between Zimbabweans inside the country and those in the diaspora. Most respondents in the diaspora were forthcoming with information during the interviews, while some local Zimbabweans were circumspect about participating in the study.

I suppose most Zimbabweans in the diaspora were willing to participate in the research because of the freedoms they enjoy in their host countries, freedoms which are not normally taken for granted in their country of origin.

However, in recent years, some Zimbabweans have used the Virtual Private Network (VPN) to circumvent internet shutdowns by the State. Others use social messaging apps like WhatsApp that give users the advantage of end-to-end encryption, but there is a need for caution, though.

The end-to-end encryption is not one hundred percent fool-proof. In recent years there have been instances where hackers were able to break into the social messaging app and extract data. Against this backdrop, what hope is there for democratisation and digital activism in Zimbabwe?

About the writer: This is an extract from Dr Reward Mushayabasa’s PhD thesis awarded by the University of Westminster, United Kingdom. Mushayabasa is a veteran media trainer.

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