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Social Media in Zimbabwe: Not Enough for DemocracyPosted by: admin on Thu, 2011-06-09 15:26
By Chief K. Masimba Biriwasha
In the wake of the political protests in North Africa, Vikas Mavhudzi made history by becoming Zimbabwe’s first “Facebook arrest.” On February 13, he posted this comment on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Facebook page: “I am overwhelmed, I don’t know what to say Mr. PM. What happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”
A Facebook user informed the police about the comment. Officers found the comment on Mavhudzi’s mobile phone, which he had used to post the message, and arrested him. Mavhudzi was incarcerated and charged with “advocating or attempting to take-over government by unconstitutional means.” After being held for more than 35 days, he is currently out on bail.
While the government’s response to Mavhudzi suggests that it is taking no chances on social networking sites, does it signal a new role for social media in Zimbabwe’s politics?
It is widely acknowledged that social networking websites helped to fuel the political protests in North Africa and other Arab states. Many experts believe that democracy in the 21st century will increasingly depend on access to the Internet and technology. As a result, oppressive governments have become suspicious of new media technology.
In Zimbabwe, however, one should avoid overstating social media’s potential for transforming governance. While it is true that social media websites offer a low-cost and relatively low-risk way for citizens to engage in protest, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure is not sufficiently developed to enable social media with a wide reach, enabling activists to mobilize a mass public. From a technological standpoint, Zimbabwe is currently estimated to be five years behind other countries in the region.
Internet access on the rise
According to the World Bank, only around 1.5 million Zimbabweans – 12 percent of the population – can claim they have some kind of internet access. Internet literacy is limited, as is web content that relates specifically to Zimbabwe. Access to the internet, moreover, is largely an urban phenomenon. Yet, most city dwellers can only use computers at their workplace, restricting their ability to engage in personal activity online.
Mobile internet access is beginning to make a difference. In recent months, there has been significant growth in this sector. Nonetheless, in a country with exponential unemployment, the cost of hand-held devices and web access remains an obstacle to greater growth.
In the future, the internet, and thus social media, is likely to play a greater role in Zimbabwe’s politics and culture. Zimbabwe is being connected to the undersea cable. Fiber-optic infrastructure is being set up across the country. It is expected that the nation will have ubiquitous connectivity and low-cost access to data by 2014. New opportunities are thus likely to arise, in terms of both business and politics.
Technology controlled by the state
Against the backdrop of increasing access to technology, it is important to consider the government’s track record of suppressing dissent. It is likely to pass laws to allow it to cut off communication services. The arrest of Mavhudzi showed not only that the government is prepared to quash dissent on social networks; it also proved that technologies like the internet and mobile phones are useful for spying on private citizens.
Governments can interfere with websites and e-mails. They even possess the power to switch off the internet, as happened briefly in Egypt before the old regime fell. The New York Times reported that governments in North Africa used communications technology to track down activists. Facebook accounts were hacked in Tunisia and that Egyptian authorities used technology that turned mobile phones into furtive listening devices.
A crucial issue for democratic change is whether people dare to speak up. In Zimbabwe, fear of reprisal is common. Citizens may be reluctant to use social media for protest purposes because they think they may be under surveillance. The memory of brutal violence during the various election campaigns of 2008 is still very much alive. Unless such fears are overcome, there will be no democratic change. In Egypt, the people had to brave tanks and guns in Tahrir Square to topple their dictator, and that was certainly not an exercise in virtual reality.
To complicate matters in Zimbabwe, leaders in the pro-democracy movement have not always been adept at providing clear positions and leadership. Tsvangirai promised democratic change when he was running against President Robert Mugabe in 2008. Mugabe only prevailed in office because he unleashed unprecedented violence, and afterwards an odd coalition of the adversaries was formed, brokered by other African leaders. It is not a good omen that Mavhudzi ran into trouble because he posted a message on Tsvangirai’s Facebook page. This is, after all, the leader who says he is the alternative to the autocrat.
Sometime in the not too distant future, social media tools like Facebook could facilitate spaces for people to openly express themselves in defiance of censorship, circumventing both state-owned and privately owned media. The tech-savvy younger generation could play a leading role.
But we are not there yet. So far, the internet poses no real challenge to the status quo. It has not changed habits and patterns of news consumption and information sharing. Basically, the government still controls the flow of information.
The author is a journalist from Zimbabwe with an extensive background in
development and communication policy. He blogs at