Mugabe’s Online Nightmare

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Net Savvy

Mugabe’s Online Nightmare

The Daily News website and Zimonline continue to publish news critical of the Mugabe regime, and there’s not much Jonathan Moyo can do about it. Matthew Buckland looks at the power of websites as tools of democracy in Africa.

When South African mainstream media were covering the banning and demise of Zimbabwe’s biggest independent daily paper, the Daily News, what wasn’t widely reported was that the title continued publishing from outside Zimbabwe’s borders via another medium: the internet.

The Daily News had cleverly registered a website address, www.daily-news.co.za, in neighbouring South Africa and kept churning out the news in the absence of its print product. So while Zimbabwean police moved into the Daily News offices to shut down printing presses and confiscate computers, there was not a single thing they could do about a website registered and located in a foreign country with free press laws.

Perhaps the South African media should have made more fuss about the Daily News website. For example, it may have ever so slightly dented the Zimbabwean government’s victory if SABC or e.tv news reports on the Daily News demise were accompanied by a reference to the rise and continued presence of the website, together with the web address for viewers to visit and support.

Following the Daily News example, another Zimbabwean website has now burst onto the scene. Zimonline, at www.zimonline.co.za, is another website for Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe and it too is registered and published from South Africa – beyond the clutches of the Zimbabwean government. Unlike the Daily News it is an exclusively online publication without a newspaper to back it. The website has a small army of dedicated journalists based in Harare and Johannesburg to keep the news ticking over on a daily basis.

The “.co.za” domain address means that Zimbabwe’s energetic editor-in-chief, Information Minister Jonathan Moyo, can do absolutely nothing about these sites. He can vent, scream, shout and spout his usual vitriol, but he cannot close Zimonline or the Daily News website. The sites fall under South Africa’s free press laws, and that’s where it ends.

Zimonline spokesperson and human rights lawyer Daniel Molokela says most of his site’s readership is from Zimbabwe, even though the site is based in South Africa. He says the site has been “overwhelmed”, attracting a big readership that is showing a “thirst” for independent news. And the website appears to be quite successful at breaking the news too. Molokela says that some big South African titles such as Thisday, The Star, Sunday Independent and Pretoria News have carried stories that Zimonline first broke.

The Zimonline and Daily News examples show the power of websites in championing freedom of speech in oppressive environments, and the special role they can play in the face of government censorship. Oppressive governments haven’t known quite what to do with the internet up until now because it’s not as simple to control as other media.

In many ways websites are the ultimate tools of democracy and freedom of expression. Almost anyone can publish easily and quickly, and at a fraction of the cost of television, radio or print. Websites are a way of combating not only political censorship, but censorship caused by financial constraints.

But the reason we have yet to see a major clampdown on the internet by authoritarian regimes on this continent is probably because it is still largely a tool of the elite: restricted to universities, corporations and the wealthy. It has yet to pose a threat worth worrying about in Africa, unlike China where internet use is more widespread and authorities have tried to restrict the free flow of information in cyberspace.

The Zimbabwean government’s recent moves to force internet service providers in the country to monitor customers’ e-mails and report “objectionable, obscene, unauthorised” material shows a greater awareness of the danger the internet poses. Regretfully, this unwanted attention may be a sign of things to come from certain autocratic African regimes.

Matthew Buckland is editor and manager of the Mail & Guardian Online @ www.mg.co.za

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