When I was taken into police custody by the state over a story that our website published a few months ago, social media and internet based publications quickly raised alarm over my plight.Within minutes the world was now aware that somewhere in Zimbabwe , a journalist was in police custody thanks to social media platforms.
On arrival from his Japan visit, President Robert Mugabe urged the government to implement measures that would control use of social media arguing that it was being abused. This was particularly worrying to me because I use social media and blogs every day to criticize the government of President Mugabe.
The Sunday Mail quoted minister of ICTs Supa Mandiwanzira claiming to be ‘seized’ with the matter of implementing measures to control the internet and social media.
Mandiwanzira gives the example of the Tafadzwa Mushunje story where this woman was accused of having injected her boyfriends child with HIV as evidence of how social media is used to infringe on the rights of private citizen. Although Mandiwanzira purports to be speaking on behalf of Mushunje and other citizens who have had their rights allegedly violated by social media , there is no other voice except his to support these claims.
He neglects to mention that it’s through the same social media that Mushunje produced a video that she circulated to clear her name. There are people who have had their rights genuinely violated by users of social media. One such person is the famous ‘tezvara’ whose picture was circulated and ‘photoshopped’ to the extent of having the national broadcaster also using his ‘photoshopped’ pictures. This is a person who neither asked nor deserved the ridicule he suffered at the hands of the public. Despite this undeserved humiliation the man was never quoted recommending the banning or regulation of social media.
The aggrieved man in interviews with news agencies said he was not bothered by people’s opinions over his sense of dressing. It seems then that the people offended by social media are Mugabe and his officials. Mandiwanzira and Mugabe are crying more than the bereaved. They focus on the negatives of social media and the internet but neglect to amplify the positives such as enabling of citizen journalism and efficiency in governance presented by the internet.
Remedies for social media abuse
Private Citizens can sue or cause the prosecution of anyone who defames or invades their privacy using social media. Moreover social media networks have user rules that allow offended parties to report those abusing social media. These abusers of social media can be blocked or restricted from using social media. There really is no need for drastic measures such as those recommended by Mugabe to deal with social media.
Government also has options of investing in awareness programmes for responsible use of social media and the internet. Social media is also being used in other progressive democratic countries but the government has chosen to follow the Chinese model. I wonder why President Mugabe has also not emulated the Chinese model of dealing with government corruption.
The minister proposes that Zimbabwe emulates China by developing its own social media networks. He seems to be ignorant of the fact that China has different social dynamics to Zimbabwe. China for example has a huge population of over 1 billion people which provides a ready market for goods and services. It makes economic sense for the Chinese to develop their own social media platforms rather than allow foreign goods and services access to their markets because they have the critical mass. They can afford to reinvent the wheel but we can’t.
The same cannot be said about Zimbabwe which has a population of only 15 million people who do not even have buying power. Emulating the Chinese therefore is premised upon sheer ignorance on the part of Mugabe and his minister who never seem to apply their minds in issues of policy formulation and implementation.
Social media also provides a platform for Zimbabweans to link with the outside world. It appears this government wants to harness remittances from Zimbabweans outside the country but wants to close down communication between them and their relatives around the world. Can Zimbabwe afford to be a closed community such a China?
Our government simply wants to curtail social media and the internet in order to escape criticism and accountability for its actions. Social media has been instrumental in allowing ordinary citizens to vent their frustration on Mugabe and his government. The internet has provided a new frontier for investigative journalism that has since died in mainstream media in the country because of its dangerous nature.
This is what President Mugabe wants to nip in the bud. Unlike mainstream media which is often captured and easily manipulated the same cannot be said about social media and the internet which cannot be censored. The internet has the unfettered and raw voices of ordinary people.
Social media is also an outlet to the outside world of injustices happening in the country. When I was put in police custody recently , social media and internet based publications ran with my story and I felt safe and in touch with the rest of the world. Not even the dingy police station could kill my spirit because my story was being told to the world via the internet.
Mugabe does not want his opponents to enjoy this comfort and also hates the speed with which the atrocities perpetrated by his government are quickly conveyed to the rest of the world via social media and the internet. State media for example did not find it newsworthy that journalists had been taken in for unnecessary questioning by the state. We had to rely on Twitter, Facebook and publications such as News24 to have our story told to the world.
The regime wants to prevent access to information and effectively silence all its opponents who have found a voice through social media and the internet.Censorship of the internet is something that all Zimbabweans must resist. The Mugabe government must conform to changing world dynamics.