Disciplining the Digital public sphere: Understanding Zimbabwe's fast evolving social media landscape

Broadly, Zimbabwe’s media landscape has been governed by a highly restricted framework and this has spurred interest in the use of social media platforms as an alternative to mainstream media.

Context and Contests of Zimbabwe’s Social Media Landscape

Broadly, Zimbabwe’s media landscape has been governed by a highly restricted framework and this has spurred interest in the use of social media platforms as an alternative to mainstream media. This article analyses the digital public sphere that is intensely active and has generally escaped government media restrictions. Independent and citizen journalists, pro-democracy campaigners, and civil society have managed to tap into the capabilities of social media to increase citizens' access to information, host critical voices outside the state, and expand ways in which civic pressure is exerted in shaping public policy and even expose corruption cases.

As more people move to access social media platforms the state has been on the backfoot and the terrain of the digital public sphere has proved too unwieldy for state domination and control. This article identifies the ways and strategies that journalists have employed to build a critical digital public sphere that has tried to avoid the threats and clampdowns on comments made in the social media. In response, the government has had a sustained crackdown based on twin strategies of ‘coercion’ and ‘manufacturing consent’ in a bid to discipline the digital public sphere.

Social Media in Zimbabwe: Escaping Censorship?

Zimbabwe has experienced a significant growth of an active online community especially from the year 2000. The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), the telecommunications regulator, notes that from the year 2000-2019 mobile penetration rose from 2.3 percent to 90.6 percent and internet penetration rose from 5.1 percent to 60.6 percent of the total population. As of January 2022, Zimbabwe’s social media is reportedly to have grown by 19.2 percent with Facebook being the most used standing at 1.3 million subscribers.

Concomitant to these rising statistics on social media in Zimbabwe has been the exponential growth of new media operations such as Bus Stop TV, Magamba TV, CITE (Center for Innovation and Technology), Big Saturday Read, Gravitas Bulletin, NewZimbabwe, Nehanda Radio and TV, Comic Pastor and @263 Chat, among others. The benefits of the social media to Zimbabweans are summed below in an extract from the Zimbabwe Independent of May 17, 2022:

For the people of Zimbabwe, social media platforms play a critical role. It is a space where healthy discussions about government and development are entertained. It provides a space for the users to engage with one another in a safe manner and further, even get in touch with the elected representatives. Further, many activists of the country use social media to drive real social changes by throwing light on corruption and violations of human rights (May 17, 2022).

Independent journalists have created a considerable following through YouTube, notable in the section includes ((2) In Conversation with Trevor - YouTube). The platform, whose objective is to ‘beyond the headlines and beyond the sensational, engaging in robust conversations that will help move the nation forward’ has over 34,000 subscribers and one video interview has generated over 233, 000 viewers. Another good example is the channel called ((2) BUSTOP TV - YouTube) with a stated objective to ‘create short humorous videos targeting current issues’, has more than 133, 000 subscribers and several videos that have generated over half a million views.

Civil society, independent journalists and citizen activists have been utilizing the microblogging site Twitter. One of Zimbabwe’s prominent journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono (Hopewell Chin’ono (@daddyhope) / Twitter)   has especially used Twitter to expose corruption, engage citizens on public policy questions and promote civic education, especially registering to vote. Put together these twitter handles interact and constantly engage with citizens on daily basis and often the engagement is something beyond what mainstream media (radio, newspapers, TV) would have achieved in Zimbabwe.

Some public intellectuals have built blogging platforms that have become influential in shaping political opinion. The late Dr Alex Magaisa started writing opinions pieces in the local independent newspapers that he then developed into The Big Saturday Read (Home - Big Saturday Read (bigsr.africa)). Its publication was generally followed by very intense debates often on Twitter, Facebook and was distributed in WhatsApp groups. So influential was The Big Saturday Read, that the state media opinion makers had to try several ways of delegitimizing it.

More so, social media platforms have also expanded via the more easily accessible like WhatsApp and Telegram that can be easily accessible on smart phones. Often news generated and debated on the dominant platforms is fed into other information ecologies. Attendant to this has been the use of livestreaming options offered by the same social media platform, this often means hosts of live events can by-pass the broadcasting regulations in Zimbabwe.

Cracking the Whip: Targeting Online Platforms

In response to the rise, and exponential growth of the digital public sphere, the government has developed ever evolving strategies to expand control over the emergent social media landscape. The government has deployed a complex combination of coercion (naked/raw power) and manufacturing consent strategies (persuasion), meaning the use of subtle ways to generate and project a state-controlled narrative into the digital public sphere.

Firstly, the government has targeted prominent journalists through what can be called persecution through prosecution. Journalist, Hopewell Chinóno was arrested for exposing corruption within the National Prosecuting Agency regarding a gold smuggling case involving a politically connected person. A teacher and trade unionist who used social media to organize and mobilize against poor working conditions, Edith Mupondi, a teacher in one of Harare’s high-density suburbs was arrested for posting in a Whatsapp group that her ‘salary is too meagre’.

Secondly, there has been a proliferation of physical harm to citizen journalists, mainly active online to deter them from creating and building content on their social media platforms. In August 2019, comedian Samantha Kureya of Bus Stop TV an online media start-up was abducted and tortured and dumped in another suburb by suspected state security agents. On the same night her colleague, Sharon Chideu reportedly survived the abduction by a whisker after getting a tip-off. Prior to the abduction Bus Stove TV, had done several skits critical of government and police.

Using By-laws

In 2017, the City of Harare attempted to close and demolish Moto Republic a hub that hosts creatives and start-ups in a bid to fix its founder Cde Fatso, whose Magamba online TV was producing comical satires very critical of government. The council did not have any court order and was citing a 1974 by-law, despite that the Harare mayor was also ignorant of the decision to demolition some sections Moto Republic.  This was also at the height of active online hashtag movements such as #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka that shook Zimbabwe’s political space.

Restrictive Laws

In 2021, the government of Zimbabwe enacted the Data Protection Act which has some problematic sections like transmission of data message that incites violence or damage to property. These can be used as threats to fundamental rights of freedom of expression and criminalising digital activism. In November 2022 the cabinet approved amendments to the Criminal Law Codification Act to include patriotism sections that will criminalise talking to foreign governments. Also, in the pipeline is the PVO Bill that seeks to curtail and criminalise some activities of civil society organisations especially in the human rights and governance fields. Most media organisations, independent and citizen journalists who have been relying on international development assistance will be affected once they come into effect.

War of ideas: Internet Ghosts and de-legitimation

The ruling elite has developed a very coordinated strategy to project state generated narratives. Speaking at a ZANU-PF Youth meeting during the July 2018 election campaign, President Mnangagwa instructed the youth league to enter the social media terrain to defeat and destroy ZANU PF opponents. This marked the birth of ZANU-PF’s new online army varakashi (“destroyers”). Civil society leaders, opposition activists, independent media and even foreign embassies have been the subject of targeted online campaigns laced with vitriolic language.  An infamous fall out between a ‘ghost’ account supposedly operated by a state official and their team members seemed to confirm that the government was paying and operating a network of social media trolls.

Counternarratives and disinformation

Building counternarratives and cyber-propaganda has been one strategy effectively used by the government to create disinformation and delegitimize victims. A comedian Samantha Kureya, of Bus Stop TV, was accused of faking her own abduction and torture in a bid to get donor funding. By pushing this narrative of fake abductions, the government was attempting to defray focus from allegations that its security agencies were implicated. Such a dis-information strategy can prove to be very effective in highly polarised and low digital literate environments like Zimbabwe.

A Bag of Carrots and Sticks

Zimbabwe’s media landscape has been a mixed bag of Machiavelli’s ‘carrots and sticks’ with the latter dominating. In fact, the 2020 African Media Barometer sums Zimbabwe’s media landscape:

However, although there are arguably more freedoms in the country, there has also been more repression, including the shutdown of internet access in 2019. There are also continued government threats of clamp down on comments made in the social media.

Future Alternatives: Digital Rights, Innovation and Counter Publics

This article has outlined how the social media landscape is evolving, the narrative contests in that sphere, who are the major players and how the government is employing a combination of strategies to control the emergent digital public sphere. The African Media Barometer (2020) identified the digital sphere as ana important arena for citizens, ‘Digital media, especially social media platforms, have proven advantageous to under-represented communities to tell their own stories’. In such a fast moving and dynamic environment some of the inequities of income, gender and rural-urban divide are often replicated meaning the digital public sphere can end up being limited and dominated by a vocal and well-resourced elite. This article ends by pointing out some brief strategies that can help propagate a wider digital and accessible digital public sphere.

Digital Rights Campaigns

As a long-term project, civil society and social media platforms must take into consideration the need for a national comprehensive digital rights regime that supports the evolution of an engaged digital public sphere.

Engagement Beyond Traditional social media

Media platforms and citizen journalism will have to actively create engagement that goes beyond traditional mainstream media channels, in this case Whatsapp and telegram plays a significant role beyond the rural/urban and income divide, this will erode some of the replication of elitism.

Public Intellectual Engagement and Opinion Making

The tragic death of Dr Alex Magaisa and the demise of the Kubatana Newsletter created a public intellectual gap that must be actively plugged. In South Africa, the Daily Maverick continues to publish opinion pieces that shape political activity online and offline.

Civil Society Support for a Social Media Platform Ecosystem

Zimbabwe’s social media ecosystem has a highly rigid political landscape buttressed an equally restrictive legal framework. This means one needs to be highly innovative to protect and expand the democratic public sphere created. For this to happen this ecosystem will need more and more regional and global allies for solidarity and access to global platform for the work to continue.

About the authors

Tamuka Charles Chirimambowa is the Executive Secretary of the Institute for Public Affairs in Zimbabwe. He is published author on democratisation, civil society, media, migration, and economic transformation in Southern Africa. He has written for Democracy Works Foundation and The Elephant.

Tinashe Lukas Chimedza has written for Zimbabwe’s independent media, for the The Elephant and book chapters and journals papers on democracy and development in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa. See Tinashe Chimedza | The Elephant.

The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

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