26 July, 2013

The Battle for the News: Zimbabwe and Beyond

by Virgil Hawkins

A 'pirate' television station has been set up in South Africa and is now broadcasting an alternative version of reality into Zimbabwe via satellite. The establishment of 1st TV, as the channel is called, comes just twelve days before controversial elections in that country, and follows the cutting off of access via free-to-air decoders in Zimbabwe to South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) programs.

In an environment in which the national broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), has a monopoly over the airwaves, and essentially acts as a cheerleader for the ruling ZANU-PF, such exiled media should certainly inject some fresh air onto the scene. The timing of the channel's establishment clearly shows that influencing voters in the run-up to elections is high on its list of objectives (although it may seem to be arriving a little late in the game). The fact that 1st TV is being run by Morgan Tsvangirai's former communications director (Andrew Chadwick) certainly serves to cement such an impression, although he claims that the channel is providing impartial and factual information for the public, and emphasizes that it is here to stay. The ZANU-PF and its representatives are, needless to say, unimpressed by the development, and are publicly vowing to do what they can to “cripple” it.

Another form of South Africa-based cross-border media?
(Photo: Sokwanele)

Some reports have also suggested that the British government may be partially funding the endeavour, although neither the British Embassy nor the head of 1st TV have been willing to confirm nor deny this report. What we can be very sure of, is that President Robert Mugabe remains a figure that the British government, and the British media (among a long list of other entities in the Western world) love to hate with a passion, and they will have much to say about how these elections will be run and the results they 'produce'. We will hear in explicit detail about how the elections are being rigged, and, among many other deficiencies in the democratic process (to put it mildly), the iron grip that Mugabe and the ZANU-PF hold over the media and the flow of information in general.

While repressive state control over the flow of information in Zimbabwe is certainly deserving of persistent and critical attention from abroad, the state of affairs in that country need to be kept in perspective – we should not forget that there are other countries on the continent where the situation is considerably worse. If the Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index is to be believed, there are (according to the 2013 index) thirteen African countries that are considered to be more repressive than Zimbabwe in controlling their media.

Of the 179 countries covered by the index, Eritrea is the country in the world with the least press freedom, falling below North Korea, Turkmenistan and Syria. Other African countries near the bottom of the list include Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, and Equatorial Guinea. Rwanda, which (until recently at least) has rarely attracted any criticism from the West, is not far behind them, ranked at number 161. As we move up the list, we find Egypt, Swaziland, Gambia, DR Congo, Tunisia, Ethiopia and Morocco (another close friend of the West), before reaching Zimbabwe, which is ranked at number 133.

Such rankings, of course, do not tell the whole story, and the Edward Snowden case has certainly reminded us that the threat against freedom of information posed by those with power is not just something that applies to those countries on the lower end of the list. The administration of Zimbabwe's northern neighbour Zambia (which comes in at number 72 on the Press Freedom Index), led by Michael Sata, for example, has apparently been looking into the possibility of shutting down access in the country to Facebook and Twitter. This comes after finding that sites critical of his administration (Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports) that the government has already had shut down, are still disseminating their information through these social networks.

The old adage, 'information is knowledge and knowledge is power', serves as a source of fear for those who would jealously guard their power, but it should also serve as a source of encouragement for those of us with an interest in closing the gap between the haves and have-nots of power.

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