New Tech Tools Transforming Journalism

By Masimba Biriwasha | Global Editor At Large | @ChiefKMasimba | February 27, 2014

The digital age is transforming the face of journalism, challenging journalists to tell stories in new and innovative ways. Today audiences are being bludgeoned by tons of information resulting in limited attention spans. What this means for journalist is they have to present their stories in a manner that not only attracts but keeps attention. Continue reading

The Power Of Investigative Journalism

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha | Global Editor At Large | @ChiefKMasimba | February 25, 2014

Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth, bringing to light hidden facts. With investigative journalism, the goals is to expose the truth through fact-based, ethical storytelling.


Abuses of power are often shrouded in secrecy. Similarly, corrupt dealings tend to operate in the dark. That’s why it takes more than just reporting but Sherlock Holmes like investigation to get to the truth of matters. Continue reading

Redesigning Journalism in the Digital Age

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha | Global Editor At Large | @ChiefKMasimba | February 20, 2014

Journalism in the digital age is increasingly about helping audiences filter through the gazillions of content being produced on a daily basis through high quality, interactive and engaging storytelling. Thanks to technology, journalism is being reshaped, and stories are being told with greater innovation.

Continue reading

Are Native Ads Good or Bad for Digital Journalism?

By Masimba Biriwasha | Global Editor-At-Large | January 01, 2013 | @ChiefKMasimba

Late last year, The New York Times announced that it will be going big on native advertising in 2014 raising questions about authenticity, particularly on what is and what is not journalism.

Native advertising, described by AdAge as the hottest new form of advertising, is a web advertising method that employs content to lure readers. That’s a very basic definition. According to Sharethrough, a company which specializes in the medium, native advertising is a form of paid media where the ad experience follows the natural form and function of the user experience in which it is placed.

On January 8, The New York Times will unveil a new digital look which incorporates native advertising and will be more stronger on visuals such as video and photography.

The New York Times, a lodestar of journalism the world over, will feature the native adverts – first on the newspaper’s website and later on its mobile platforms – as way to shore up revenues in an industry hard struck by technology. Other large publishers such as Washington Post, Vanity Fair, Buzzfeed are already rolling out native advertising which promises greater interaction with users, albeit at the risk of breaking the separation between advertising and editorial content.

There are fears that consumers may be duped by the nature of native advertising – a hot topic in digital publishing – with consumers expected to distinguish between what is paid native advertising versus editorial content. Native adverts are made to be cohesive with the page content, assimilated into the design, and consistent with the platform behavior that the viewer simply feels that they belong, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB). Put simply, the ads are supposed to look similar to the surrounding published content

Native advertising seeks to deliver content within the context of a user’s experience with formats including  features like a color bar and the words “Paid Post” would enable readers to identify material as advertising content.

“There is a renaissance underway in digital advertising that is driving brands, publishers and consumers to communicate with each other in more personal and natural ways,” said Patrick Albano, Vice President, Social, Mobile and Innovation Sales at Yahoo, and Co-Chair of the IAB Native Advertising Task Force. “Native advertising is an important piece of this evolution.”

According to IAB, native advertising has emerged both as an exciting new way for digital markets to engage with the consumer, and as a new source of advertising revenue for publishers. If you have been on a web page with branded content, you probably know how intrusive and distracting such content is to user experience. Because such content is formatted just like an news article, users can potentially be waylaid.

New York Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, was quoted in a letter to employees as saying said that features like a color bar and the words “Paid Post” would enable readers to identify material as advertising content. He added that there would be “strict separation between the newsroom and the job of creating content for the new native ads.”

But whether readers will be able to figure out the difference between editorial content and paid advertising is shrouded in controversy. The seamless integration of branded messaging into consumers’ content experiences in order to acquire attention maybe regarded as an art of deception.

The Time quoted Edith Ramirez, chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission critiquing native advertising saying at a conference last year.

““By presenting ads that resemble editorial content, an advertiser risks implying, deceptively, that the information comes from a nonbiased source,” she said.

If readers don’t fall prey to the deception of native of advertising, it’s difficult to see how the ads will succeed.

“I firmly believe that advertising on the modern internet will be defined by meaningful content, not standard ads. There’s a movement happening, away from interruptive, traditional ads, and towards thoughtful brand stories — and native ads are the most potent and effective distribution strategy for content-based advertising,” said Dan Greenberg, Founder and CEO, Sharethrough. “For advertisers, native, content-based advertising is the translation layer between the modern internet and traditional TV.”

In his letter to employees, Sulzberger acknowledged that native advertising is “relatively new and can be controversial,” but is necessary to help “restore digital advertising revenue to growth.”

Publishers Team Up For Digital Cake

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha | Digital Media Specialist

The terrain of traditional publishing has been much about cut-throat competition but due to pressures presented by new media technologies, this is changing fast. Reaching audiences with content is no longer the domain of newspapers alone. Newspapers are feeling the heat. In the UK, competitor newspapers are beginning to collaborate to try and wad off the

According to a report in the Financial Times, publishers of newspapers and magazines are setting aside competitive differences to collaborate as they grapple with larger digital platforms and plummeting traditional advertising revenue.

The Financial Times quoted Lee Baker, director of the Association of Online Publishers saying that pubblishers were now collaborating to make sense in the digital era.

“Publishers are coming together to understand how they can work collaboratively.We are seeing more of that on a much more sophisticated level … Lots of businesses are simultaneously moving into very, very new territory, which is driving this approach.”

Taking things a little local, there in no doubt that technology and data are today driving the market. However, in Zimbabwe, publishers are lagging a bit in the technology race. One simply needs to look at the hiring patterns within newsrooms to understand that the technological shift has not adequatelly affected the way local publisher are doing business.

Having said that, it’s important that what makes or break a newspaper or magazine is content: original, quality content is the key to success.

Old Mutual Shuts Down Top Independent Arts Hangout Book Cafe/Mannenberg in Zimbabwe

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

One of Zimbabwe’s legendary arts and culture hangout, the Book Cafe and Mannenberg, located at the Five Avenues Mall in Harare’s Avenues suburb is scheduled to close its doors to the public at the end of the year due to lack of lease renewal by Old Mutual Property, owners of the property.

The two venues which are managed by the Pamberi Trust, have played a central role in the cultural life of the capital city. In fact, they have been the soul of the creative industry hosting artists of all guise from around Zimbabwe and the globe.

The Book Cafe was recently awarded the 2011 Prince Claus Awards worth €25 000 for its role in “culture and development”, built and focussed on a platform of freedom of expression across music, poetry and theatre with public discussion, film and multi-disciplinary arts.

According to a statement from Pamberi Trust Trust, OK Zimbabwe Pension Fund and its agents Old Mutual Property who own the Five Avenue Shopping Mall served notice to all tenants in the building that they intend to occupy the premise in 2012. Representations to the owners and the agents have proved to no availa, read the statement.

“After 7500 concerts and functions, 650 public discussions, over 70 book launches, 35 theatre productions, staging of 150 international touring acts and countless new local acts and collaborations that emerged within, Harare’s iconic music and performing arts centre, Book Cafe and Mannenberg, will close its doors to the public in Fife Avenue Shopping Mall,” said By Paul Brickhill, Pamberi Trust’s Creative Director .

“About 600,000 have entered the twin venues since opening, as Book Cafe in 1997 with Luck Street Blues, and Mannenberg in 2000 with historic performances by Africa’s great jazz pianist Abdullah Ibrahim. The two venues gave rise to the urban mbira phenomena, a Friday night institution in Harare’s nightlife, pioneered stand-up comedy, championed freedom of expression, laid the foundation for slam poetry, and created major youth and female arts development programmes. The venues were closely associated with many great jazz and blues acts in the early years, and latterly with the reggae renaissance sweeping Zimbabwe.”

Brickhill beamoned the little regard that is paid to civic cultural and intellectual life in Zimbabwe.

“One has to wonder what kind of Zimbabwean spirit and legacy we will create for future generations when the needs of civic cultural and intellectual life are so easily supplanted by those of commerce and profit, even while they can co-exist happily. Book Cafe, for those who truly know its heart, has been a place of beauty, joy and togetherness; and so it never failed to uplift the spirit. 350 artists earn a dignified livelihood at the venues, as well as 45 staff. Never in its history did it offend. All have been welcome, and so all came to visit at one time or other. As Edgar Langeveld once said, if you care to sit at Book Cafe long enough, a week or so, every kind of Zimbabwe will wander through,” said Brickhill.

“The pantheon of music, poetry, comedy, theatre and other artists that emerged through the Book Cafe and Mannenberg is simply the stuff of legend, their number runs not in dozens but hundreds. They know who they are, and in most cases so do the audiences. Some are here, some scattered, some have passed away and some retired. We pay tribute to them all”.

“There are not too many in political, social and media spheres that did not at some time engage in public debate in Book Cafe, and that includes many leaders of yesterday and today. We have been a place of free expression, a platform for exchange of public dialogue”.

“What will happen now is that we will bid farewell to Fife Avenue. The artists, audiences and friends who came to know and appreciate this space may also say their goodbyes, since each had their own way of being part of us and each other at Book Cafe and Mannenberg. This festive season is our last in this venue, and this New Year’s Eve is the last we shall enjoy together at this place, with a hug and a wish for the coming year at midnight”.

“Does the show go on? We will make our announcements in due course. For now, what I can say is that as one door closes in life, so another opens. After 30 years, we have not given up, despite some desperate hardships along the way. We have history. Honestly, it is for us just another bend in the path. To quote my old friend David Ndoro, with whom we invented much of the early years, ‘It is a journey, not a destination’. And so, yes, it will continue”.

“I would like, on behalf of some 1200 artists and our team here, to sincerely and humbly say thank you to every person who has supported, attended or performed at shows and events, who enjoyed themselves, engaged with others in the world of ideas and laughed together. To our many partners in the arts and civil society, as we always said, ‘we are building the kind of Zimbabwe we want to live in’. And so we did. And so we will continue”.

Retired General Solomon Mujuru’s Death Lights Up Social Media

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

Harare, Zimbabwe – Once again, social media and mobile telephony makes the news for breaking the news.

Early Tuesday, social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, were abuzz with news of Retired General Solomon Mujuru’s death. Mujuru, who was 62, died in a fire accident at his home.

Social networks carried vital information to Zimbabweans both locally and abroad ahead of traditional news outlets.  Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, had by mid-morning updated its profile on Mujuru to indicate that he had died.

If anything, this proves that social networks and the mobile have indeed come to Zimbabwe in a big way, and will increasingly become a source of local news developments.

The news went viral as people shared news via their mobiles phones and on social media platforms.

By mid-morning, the national broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation, had not yet carried news of Mujuru’s death, prompting some people to question its news-gathering approach.

With technology and news in the digital age spreading information so quickly, the broadcast network was rather slow to fill the information gap.

Regardless, the news spread like wildfire across the twittersphere and of course on to Facebook, with many Zimbabweans expressing shock, commenting and sharing the sad news.

Reporting on Mujuru’s death confirms that conventional news media in Zimbabwe have to position themselves appropriately in relation to the social networks and mobile phones to report news.

However, even though people heard the news of Mujuru’s death on social networks, they still wanted the information to be verified. Twitter, Facebook, and other social networks encourage people to speculate.

As much as they can be a source of news, social networks can be a repository for false or misleading reports.

What is required is for conventional news outlets to leverage on the power of social networks without compromising traditional journalism principles such as accuracy, brevity, objectivity and fairness.

In the face of social networks’ ubiquitous distribution of news that maybe false or true, traditional news outlets still have a key role to play in providing investigation and context into issues.

Solomon Mujuru, also known as Rex Nhongo (May 1, 1949 – August 16, 2011) was a Zimbabwean military officer and politician who led Robert Mugabe‘s guerrilla forces during the Rhodesian Bush War.

In post-independence Zimbabwe, he went on to become army chief before leaving government service in 1995. After leaving his post in the Zimbabwe National Army, he got into politics becoming Member of Parliament for Chikomba on a Zanu PF ticket. He was generally regarded as one of the most feared men in Zimbabwe. His wife, Joyce Mujuru, became Vice-President of Zimbabwe in 2004.

Mobile Internet Rises in Zimbabwe

By Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha

Harare, Zimbabwe – The queue of people waiting to have their mobile internet activated snakes out of the mobile phone shop owned by Econet, Zimbabwe’s leading mobile operator until the customer consultant directs new arrivals to another branch.

According to the customer consultant, Chido Masunda, over 1,000 people are coming to the shop on a daily basis to get their mobile internet activated on their mobile phones.

“From the time we open the shop in the morning until we close we have so many people that come into the shop. There is definitely a lot of interest in mobile internet,” she said, adding that she is forced to turn away some people.

Many of the customers interested in mobile net are young, technologically savvy urbanites; the service is largely unheard of in the country’s rural areas where 70 percent of the population resides.

“I want to use my mobile internet to check out my Facebook, my email, download music as well as read newspapers,” said Nobukhosi Ndlovu, who activated her mobile net a month ago.

According to Masunda, subscribers can buy internet bundles ranging from 1 to 1000 megabytes to allow them to connect to the internet. Each megabyte costs 50 US cents. At such a cost, many people will struggle to afford the luxury of sending and receiving large files. But early signs are promising.

Since Econet launched its mobile broadband package in the last quarter of 2010, the uptake has been exponential. Latest statistics show that 1.8 million people, that’s more than 30% of the mobile operator’s 5,500,000 subscribers now have mobile internet, and the number is growing on a daily basis.

In fact, Zimbabwe’s mobile phone industry has been projected to reach 13,5 million subscribers in 2015 and worth a phenomenal US 1,34 billion by 2016, according to IE Market Research (IEMR) and the growth partnership company Frost & Sullivan (F&S), respectively. Projections are that Zimbabwe will have universal mobile connection by 2014, and with demand for voice services increasingly met, future growth is predicted to occur around mobile internet and broadband provision.

“With demand for voice services increasingly met, future growth is predicted to occur around mobile internet and broadband provision. Both mobile operators and internet access providers will benefit from this second wave of growth,” reads the Frost & Sullivan report.

Unlike a decade ago, today it is very easy to secure a mobile phone and a sim card – prices have drastically gone down. More lower-income Zimbabweans, in both rural and urban areas, are now using the mobile unlike in the past when it was a preserve of the elite. The arrival of cheap, Chinese-made mobile has also increased mobile usage in the country.

Unfortunately, there has been little to no innovation in the local mobile sector in terms of value added services which could be attributed to the lack of meaningful investment in the technology sector over the past decade due to the country’s political fallout. Voice and SMS-text messaging remain by far the most popular uses of the mobile phone.

There has been very little development in mobile banking, farming, health care provision, environment protection or improving  human rights among others. With exception, though, Kubatana.net, a grassroots organisation have been pioneering the use of mobile technology in civil society work. According to Kubatana, the project titled, “Freedom Fone” leverages the fastest growing tool for personal access to information 24/7 – the mobile phone – & marries it with citizen radio programming. Freedom Fone makes it easy to build interactive, two way, phone based information services using interactive audio voice menus, voice messages, SMS and polls.

“Audio files are stored by Freedom Fone in a Content Management System (CMS) which is updated through a simple to use browser interface. These audio clips populate an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) menu through which callers can navigate for information. Deployment in any language is possible as key global files for menu prompts can be uploaded through the browser interface to the CMS,” states Kubatana on its website.

“Individuals can contribute questions, content and feedback by leaving voice messages via the IVR interface. Freedom Fone can be operated as a collective, with different groups managing different channels (IVR menu options) of information from the same installation.”

Apart from this, the main benefit has been increased access to cheaper voice services and mobile internet. In addition, the overall growth in mobile has significantly contributed revenue to the telecommunications sector. Currently, the mobile penetration rate is 54 percent. According to statistics, Zimbabwean mobile communications market earned a total of $372,2-million in 2009.

“Mobile operators are the largest contributors to telecommunications revenues in Zimbabwe,” said Frost & Sullivan ICT Industry Analyst, Protea Hirschel. “As 3G networks expand, mobile operators compete more directly with Internet access providers. These, in turn, have entered the voice market, adding to competition.”

Despite the fact that mobile operators are raking in a lot of profit, network quality of mobile networks in Zimbabwe is generally considered to be poor by subscribers. To make matters worse, erratic power supply remains a significant challenge for all telecommunications operators.

Nonetheless, F & S reports that the mobile market in the country will experience a compound annual growth rate of 20,1%, considerably lower than the 40,6% revenue growth experienced from 2008 to 2009. The company’s forecast report released in May 2011 titled “An Overview of Zimbabwe’s Vibrant Telecommunications Market” says that subscriber numbers in Zimbabwe trebled from early 2009 to mid-2010, whereas fixed-line subscriptions remained stagnant. Mobile subscriber numbers jumped from less than two million at the end of 2008 to 6.9-million in mid-2010.

According to IEMR’s five-year Mobile Operator Forecast on Zimbabwe issued in April, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile operator, Econet Wireless is expected to take 70 percent of the market share.

“I think the company that will emerge the winner is the one pouring money into infrastructure right now, Econet Wireless. New entrants will obviously have a hard time penetrating as they will face some resistance from the incumbents,” said Limbikani Soul Makani, founder of TechZim, a blogging platform on technology in Zimbabwe. “Interconnection, for example, hasn’t been a walk in the park for Internet Access Providers wanting to introduce voice services. Small entrants are therefore facing delays while the incumbents grow their networks even bigger.”

The country’s decade-long political and economic fallout coupled with international isolation clearly resulted in little to no investment in the technological sector. The Global Information Technology Report 2007-08 ranked Zimbabwe in 125th position on the Networked Readiness Index (NRI), out of 127 countries surveyed by the World Economic Forum.

With the political system still in somewhat of a limbo, there are fears that the projected growth in the mobile telephone sector will be inhibited.

The impact of politics on mobile telephony in Zimbabwe is without a doubt. Take for example, the country’s mobile penetration rate rose from 9 to 56 percent since the inception of the inclusive government in September 2008.

When incumbent President Robert Mugabe signed a power sharing agreement with arch-rival Morgan Tsvangirai, and Arthur Mutambara two years ago, hyperinflation was estimated at 6,5 quindecillion novemdecillion percent, or 6,5 followed by 107 zeros. Violent elections in which President Mugabe was declared the winner result in Zimbabwe being ostracized at international level, stemming the transfer of technology into the country among other things.

According to Information, Communications and Technology Minister, Nelson Chamisa the country is making strides in the technology sector and is looking at actively taking information technology to rural communities. Further, ICT products can now be imported into the country free of duty.

Recently the Government of Zimbabwe (GoZ) completed the installations of the optic fibre cable that now links the state owned fixed operator to the East African Submarine System (EASSy) undersea cable through Mozambique. This is expected to significantly increase Internet and other communication connectivity speeds. The fibre, covering a distance of about 280km, is the first phase of the planned national backbone rollout.

A combination of growth in mobile telephony, installation of the fibre optic projects and increased use of data services are likely to result in a boom in the technology sector.

Mobile telephony is likely to stimulate a host to innovations in the country. In effect, experts say that an increase of 10 mobile phones per 100 people typically boosts gross domestic product (GDP) by 0,6 percent per annum in developing nations.

There is no doubt that technology will play a vital role in Zimbabwe’s political, social and economic recovery, and the mobile phone will feature prominently in that trajectory.

Wikileaks: Foe or Friend to Open Society?

Chief K.Masimba Biriwasha| AfroFutures.com Global Editor-At-Large| Harare

THERE was furore in Zimbabwe’s highest political circles when WikiLeaks – an international non-profit organisation that publishes submissions of private, secret, and classified media from anonymous news sources, news leaks, and whistleblowers –published classified US state department diplomatic cables on Zimbabwe. The leaks made news headlines and reflected, more than anything else, biases in editorial stance of state and privately-owned media outlets.32

In spite of Wiki Leak’s founder, Julian Assange’s belief that total transparency is for the good of all people, the impact of the spillage of US secrets has been controversial to say the least.

Like in Zimbabwe, the publication of the US state department diplomatic cables caused serious political fallouts in many countries around the world, including the United States itself, Belarus, Palestine, Tunisia among others. In a discussion held recently at the Columbia University Journalism School in partnership with Index on Censorship, one of the world’s preeminent advocacy organizations, panelists put the spilling of United States government secrets under the spotlight.

Mark Stephens, a lawyer who represented Assange at his extradition hearings, explained how Assange redefined society’s traditional view of whistle-blowers.

“The genius of Julian Assange was to recognize a gap in the market,” he said, arguing that Assange pioneered a new way of handling classified information. He also suggested that WikiLeaks has raised questions about how to handle an organization that exists outside of sovereign states’ regulations.

Panelist, P.J. Crowley, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, argued that Wikileaks had backfired against open expression.

“In pushing out 251,000 documents without regard for what was in them, Assange put in danger the very [democratic] activists he thought he was empowering. Possible consequences of this mean less information in cables, less information in discussions, so you have a less informed public service,” said Crowley.

In the wake of the WikiLeaks’ release in Zimbabwe, The Standard newspaper reported on alleged secret diamonds deals involving First Lady Grace Mugabe and the Reserve Bank Governor, Gideon Gono. The First Lady slapped the newspaper with a whooping US$15 million dollar lawsuit. In addition, the state media reported that the attorney general launched a probe to investigate Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s involvement in western sanctions following media reports of a classified US state department cable relating his meetings with Western ambassadors.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya, Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe director said that both the state- and privately owned local media had failed to report objectively on the WikiLeaks saga. He said that local media used the cables to buttress their editorial positions.

“The state media used the Wikileaks to sustain their editorial position against the opposition without noting that the leaks merely consisted of subjective assessments by individuals and not the official position of the US government. The private media did not make an effort to seek comment from the implicated sources,” he said.

“The thing is when you report on a personal opinion it should be balanced; the cables consisted of diplomatic opinions. If you report opinion as fact, there’s a problem.”

According to media analysts, Wikileaks risks “collateral murder” in the name of transparency. In other words, it can be used as a tool to suppress what its leader claims it stands for.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an associate editor at the Institute for Security Studies, a South Africa-based think tank was quoted by the Voice of America as saying that the spilling of the secrets could lead to destabilization in Zimbabwe. As events in Zimbabwe have revealed, the information leaked by WikiLeaks can potentially be used as a “political tool.”

“Certainly for southern Africa, the WikiLeaks Zimbabwe revelations are most significant, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say they could destabilize Zimbabwe – and thus the region – even further in the months to come,” she said.

“I am not for one second saying WikiLeaks did not have the right to make the information public; I am merely exploring the possible ramifications now that this information is out there,” she added.

However, US Ambassador to Zimbabwe, Charles A. Ray, was more blatant, calling Assange an opportunist.

“Mr Assange is an opportunist who has used this information for self-promotion. Along with freedom of the media is responsibility. Freedom of the press does not allow you to yell fire in a crowded theatre. It goes along with responsibility,” said Ray while addressing journalists at the Gweru Press Club.

“You need to be careful who you hold up as exemplars of a free press. Assange is certainly not a champion of freedom of the press, and he’s certainly no champion of people when he was told that the lives of some of the people in the leaked cables could be killed and his response was if they deal with the Americans then they probable deserve to be killed. I don’t even call him muckraker, I call him muck.”

At the panel discussion in New York, Richard Cohen, weekly columnist for The Washington Post posited that the massive leak of classified material will actually work against the Wikileaks’ goals of greater transparency in the long term.

“Assange proceeded without thought of the people affected. A lot of what was revealed was interesting but didn’t change any minds. It will intimidate people [in the future] from talking honestly,” he said.

Social Media Not All That Hot In Zimbabwe

By Chief K. Masimba| AfroFutures.com Global Editor At Large

IN the wake of the political protests in North Africa, Vikas Mavhudzi made history by becoming Zimbabwe’s first “Facebook arrest”. He had posted a comment on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangierai’s Facebook page on February 13. It read: “I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr. or 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 told 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. He was accused of “advocating or attempting to take-over government by unconstitutional means”. Mavhudzi was incarcerated and a court case was filed against him. He is currently out on bail, after being held for over 35 days. The government’s response shows that it is taking no chances on social networking sites.

Social networking websites obviously fuelled the political protests inNorth Africa and other Arab states. As a result, oppressive governments have become suspicious of new media technology. At the same time, experts say that that democracy will increasingly depend on access to the Internet and technology in the 21st century.

In Zimbabwe and other African countries, however, one should not overstate social websites’ potential for transforming governance. While it is true that they offer a low-cost and relatively low-risk way to engage in protest, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure is not sufficiently developed to make web-based expressions of dissent reach many people. According to the World Bank, only around 1.5 million Zimbabweans – 12% of the people – have some kind of internet access. Internet literacy is underdeveloped, and there is not much web content that relates specifically to Zimbabwe.

Access to the net, moreover, is largely urban-based. Most people in the cities, however, can only use computers at their workplace, which obviously restricts their scope for independent action. In terms of technology, Zimbabwe is currently estimated to be five years behind other countries in the region. The main reason is the lack of investments in technology in the past 10 years.

Too slow

Mobile internet access, however, is beginning to make a difference. In recent months, there has been exponential growth in this field. Over 600,000 people can access the web via their mobile phones now, and their number is growing daily. Nonetheless, the cost of hand-held devices and web access remains a limiting factor. Moreover, internet connections tend to be too slow to support video or podcast streams.

The internet is likely to play a greater role in the future. Zimbabwe is being connected to the undersea cable. Fibre-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.

The most popular website among Zimbabweans is Facebook. Sometime in the not too distant future, this sort of social media tool could facilitate spaces for people to openly express themselves in defiance of censorship, circumventing both state-owned and privately-owned media. The tech-savvy young generation could play a leading role.

But we are not there yet. At the moment, Zimbabwe’s technological infrastructure does not facilitate social media with a wide reach, enabling activists to mobilise a mass public. 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 what information people get.

History of suppression

Zimbabwe’s government has a track record of suppressing dissent. It is likely to pass laws to allow it to cut off communication services. The arrest of Mavhudzi not only showed 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.

Governments can interfere with websites and e-mails. They even possess the power to switch off the internet, as was briefly done in Egypt before the old regime fell. The New York Times reported that governments in North Africa used communications technology to track down activists. It stated that 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 is quite common, however. People may shy from using 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 Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s Facebook page.  This is, after all, the leader who says he is the alternative to the autocrat.

The internet and social network sites will not suffice to bring real democracy to Zimbabwe. Active citizens are necessary to achieve that goal. The opportunities for using up-to-date communications technology are likely to improve in Zimbabwe, and they are likely to give some scope to activists. But unless there are courageous people to grasp such opportunities, things will not change.