2 May 2002
Press crackdowns fuel online journalism
In response to the Zimbabwean elections in March, the international community peeled off along largely colonial lines — in either their condemnation of, or support for, the ruling ZANU-PF party fixing of the result. All African observers but the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum found the election ‘free and fair’. And it might have been easy to make the mistake. Voting was relatively orderly on the days of polling except for in the urban areas where people queued for 36 hours to vote, and the police weighed in to frustrated queues of opposition voters to ‘maintain order’.
The choice facing the Zimbabwean people was barely a choice at all. ZANU-PF, Robert Mugabe’s party, has held power since liberation in 1980. Taking advantage of a peasant uprising in 1998, they have used the real and urgent issue of land reform to extend control over rural areas. On the other hand, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) is a candidly neoliberal party, one that has promised to privatize services within a year of gaining power.
Arguably, the MDC is the lesser of two evils. Although they have used their own militia against ideological dissenters within their ranks, there would be a little more space for opposition under an MDC than a ZANU-PF regime.
President Mugabe has instituted two acts to foreclose public debate about alternatives. The Public Order and Security Act (POSA) of January 2002 targets anyone engaging in ‘terrorist’ activities among the public. In reality, this is being used to intimidate opposition members who have been prevented from giving public rallies and imprisoned.
After the election, Mugabe ushered in by executive decree the Freedom of Information and Right to Privacy Media Bill. It demands that all journalists be registered with the state, re-accredited on a yearly basis. Foreign journalists are being accredited on a discretionary basis.
Although some journalists remain defiant in the face of this onslaught, they are outnumbered and outresourced by the state-owned Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. It is unlikely that dissenting opinions will reach the public — at a time when dissent could not be more urgent.
It was into this climate that, a week before the elections, the Zimbabwe Indymedia Centre (IMC) came online. It was set up by a small group of activists keen to create a space for voices not heard in the polarized debates between Mugabe’s old-style national socialism and the MDC’s neoliberalism.
Although organized underground, written under pseudonyms, and with the server based outside Zimbabwe for security reasons, the IMC has a very public goal. That is to neuter the Freedom of Information bill by turning everyone into a journalist, by insisting, in other words, on the right of the Zimbabwean public to produce the news they consume. Of course, internet access is difficult — not least due to low levels of literacy — and the state is trying to clamp down on the IMC. But it remains a hopeful outpost for unheard Zimbabwean voices, carving out a position between the MDC and ZANU-PF at a time when both parties are trying to silence them.