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Zimbabwe blighted by a 'tsunami' of fake news

01 May 2019 at 09:31hrs | Views
Zimbabwe has once been described as a country blighted by a 'tsunami' of fake news since the beginning of a "new dispensation" following the largely unexpected or seemingly impossible removal of former President Robert Mugabe from power after nearly four decades.

After the initial air-brushing of Mugabe's ouster in November 2017 as "not quite a coup", Zimbabwe's almost endless political and economic meltdown has left many Zimbabweans now increasingly referring to the 2017 events as a coup since the military played a central role.

Increased access to social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, among others, has fuelled the spread of fake news now compared with tsunami- violent winds which cause massive destruction and displacement.

Fake news rose towards the looming of first elections under a new political order with President Emmerson Mnangagwa at the helm, the leadership vacuum caused by the incapacitation and death of founding MDC-T president Morgan Tsvangirai as well as the deepening economic decline that has brought about a variety of hardships.

Expectations were initially very high that the new president and the recycled ruling Zanu(PF) party stalwarts would bring about rapid development.

With "fake news" being generally a description of stories that are false, but have tremendous popular appeal and are shared quite extensively all sorts of questionable stories were sold as truths. The period since November 2017 has been ripe for such content largely due to polarisation in the media, with a public media which praises the government and a private media which casts doubt on almost everything done by the ruling establishment.

Caught in the middle
Civil society is usually caught between for trying to advocate for laws and rights which are always interpreted by those in power as promoting a regime change agenda.

An international commission of inquiry into August 1 post-election violence led by former South African president Kgalema Motlanthe observed the polarity of the country's media.

Government confirms the existence of a divided media and its negative effect on ethics and professionalism Information ministry permanent secretary Nick Mangwana said: "I think there are polarisation issues which bedevil our media landscape pitting the anti-establishment media against the pro-government media. This, of course, has lowered the standard of the output."

"(Zimbabwe's public broadcaster) ZBC has to monitor its own viewership and listen to its customers. They should ask themselves why Zimbabwean viewers trust news about Zimbabwe reported by their South African counterparts or other stations from elsewhere outside Zimbabwe," Mangwana said.

When mainstream media is "slow" in publishing a story about a hot issue or breaking story, fake news takes over very fast.

Despite its shortfalls, social media should be credited for breaking critical news stories in the transitional period, especially through live-streaming where the public broadcaster is nowhere to be found.

Because it took a long time for Mugabe to tender his resignation after the surprise coup announcement by the military in November 2017, social media became the biggest and most vibrant source of information for many people.

Social media players
Social media platforms got dominated by people who claimed to have well connected sources with inside information about what was going to happen next.

Fake news also spread that President Mugabe's wife Grace had divorced and dumped him over his decision to resign, information which went to the extent of being cited by some reputable international news websites.

The websites of L'Obs, Paris Match Belgium and CNews announced confidently that Grace Mugabe, the very young and ambitious wife of the ex-President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe – who fell victim of a palace revolution on the 21st of November after 37 years in power – had filed for divorce, less than a month after her husband's fall from power."She was very upset after her husband handed over the power to his former Vice-President," states the CNews website. The information was allegedly reported by "local media", writes L'Obs in an article that became the "most read" during the afternoon of December 5th.

After the November coup and with no possibility of the major political parties Zanu (PF) and MDC forming a government of national unity most fake news was created around the two parties hostility towards each other, factionalism and the formation of a transitional authority.

Some news stories suggested that Mugabe was backing the National Patritotic Front (NPF) to the extent that he had met MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa in Dubai in order to forge a coalition to fight his old party Zanu (PF).

MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa vehemently denied the story carried by state owned media titles that he met former President Robert Mugabe in Dubai.

"The Herald's fictitious story that I met Mugabe in Dubai, a place I have never visited in my life, and its hilarious cabinet list assigned to me; would give everyone a great laugh, only if today was April fools day. Our SMART focus is to deliver the people's will, come 30 July responded Chamisa.

"Propaganda or fake news is not new. It sways and divides opinion of the masses. It tarnishes public image of the MDCAlliance to benefit Zanu PF whilst the same happens with the Alliance towards the ruling party" proferred Bekezela Gumbo, a senior researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)

ZEC abused
In the run up to July 30 elections, the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC) distanced itself from a 'WhatsApp message' which made the rounds falsely allowing WhatsApp users to cast a vote for Mnangagwa. On the whole, Zimbabwe elections were viewed as firmly demonstrating the incursion and perhaps even gradual institutionalization of fake news as an actor in modern politics, particularly during national elections.

ZEC, and its top officials, was subject of numerous fake news on unproven allegations of rigging fuelled by its lack of transparency on its guidelines and the pace at which presidential results were being released.This despite public court processes which ruled differently.

On the economic front social media sites were during the July 30 elections awash with information purportedly issued by the central Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) announcing a comeback of the Zimbabwe dollar which was phased out in 2009 due to hyperinflation. The RBZ immediately dismissed the ever recurring claim as false and malicious.

The Motlanthe commission of inquiry had its fair share of ridicule through fake news, with people questioning the rationale of its mandate and the integrity of some of its members and support staff.

A political analyst who followed the commission's live broadcasts commented:

"Because of some societal divisions which need to be healed in Zimbabwe some Zanu(PF) testifiers at public televised hearings did not see many soldiers on the streets on August 1 while their MDC counterparts said there were not aware of any violent demonstrations on the same day.

Private individuals have not been spared with a barrage of damaging fake news. Musicians, actors, sporting personalities and businesspeople have made numerous headlines on social media and some untraceable news websites in stories that have proved to be false.

Popular Chimurenga music guru Thomas Mapfumo fell victim to fake news several times before ending his extended exile in the United States with the advent of the new dispensation. He thus refuted some homecoming claims prior to that:- "Chimurenga Music Company wishes to dismiss messages and a video circulating on social media purporting that Thomas Mapfumo will be performing in Harare in December as fake news. For the record there is no such show planned, the video circulating was recorded lwhen Mukanya was travelling to UK for a show. The posters are not only fictitious but misleading to millions of our fans in Zimbabwe longing for Mukanya's Bira in Zimbabwe. If Mukanya has a show it will be communicated through official channels".

Is there a solution?
Only time will tell whether the controversial Cyber Security Bill under consideration will be the saviour in countering fake news in a free media operating environment. However, media advocacy organisations such as the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), Factchecking platform ZimFact, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Zimbabwe) and Media Monitors, among others, have a mammoth task of educating the public and lawmakers about how properly reformed media laws can minimise fake news and increase trust in the public news networks.

John Masuku,a broadcast journalist is the Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is also a fellow of the Centre for Media, Data and Society at the Central European University(CEU), Budapest Hungary.

This article was first published in "Change of Guard-Zimbabwe Media-

Mugabe to Mnangagwa Transition"in the section on Fake news, disinformation, trolling and other issues online published by Media Monitors.

Source - voa
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