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Zimbabwe's online content creators under siege

08 Aug 2021 at 07:32hrs | Views
FREEDOM of expression and access to information is and will always be the backbone of any democracy.

The media should express itself freely, without being gagged or persecuted. At the bottom of a plethora of political, economic and political katzenjammers facing Zimbabwe, media freedom remains the elephant in the room.

The Zimbabwean government does not tolerate any divergent view, critics and media that publish "classified" information.

Polarisation has been perpetuated by government officials, who label journalists from the other side of town liars, sell-outs and unpatriotic.

Recently, Zanu-PF director for information went for the jugular against one of our female journalists, Miriam Mangwaya.

"Be warned of a serial news rapist, a fake news agent named Miriam Mangwaya, who is an @mdczimbabwe shameless she-desperado stationed @ NewsDayZimbabwe to drive fake news," Mugwadi said on his Twitter handle.

Mugwadi represents the ruling party, and part of their election promise was freedom of the media.

True to Idi Amin Dada's infamous statement, "you have freedom of speech, but freedom after speech that I cannot guarantee you."

Section 61 & 62 of the constitution empowers the media access to information without interference, intimidation and confrontation by the government and its agencies.

Evidently, not much has changed in comparison to the Mugabe era insofar as the media in the country, the new dispensation has turned out to be an evil doppelgänger. In essence, Mugabe still lives and still rules us. We are yet to wake up from the Bob nightmare.

The Covid-19 lockdown has become an instrumental tool employed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa's government to suppress media freedoms.

Zimbabwe online content creators still struggle to be recognised as media practitioners just like other journalists from print and television organisations.

In 2020, Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) promulgated some accreditation criteria, which had six categories for both local and international practitioners.

- Journalists working for the mainstream media registered or licenced by the ZMC and the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ);
- Foreign media personnel cleared by the government through the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services;
- Online media practitioners running online news channels;
- Content producers, who produce various media products for online distribution;
- Photographers;
- Media practitioners in the film sector.

Truly speaking, the regulation was a failed strategy by the government that would have seen accreditation criteria altered and split into different categories, some of which would have disadvantaged online content creators by failing to attend certain events.

Cooking media laws is always a government's attempt to silence online content creators in the past years, one can easily imagine a scenario where journalists with "mainstream" media IDs are given access to attend an event whilst those without are denied entry.

The recent attempts to revive some parts of the Criminal Codification Act of Zimbabwe is a very vicious act that can be inimical to media freedoms. All this has been necessitated by the Covid-19 lockdown.

Journalism has been a difficult journey since the reign of Mugabe, several cases of abductions and notable threats on Twitter by government officials such as George Charamba and Nick Mangwana. The government continues to hide behind the Covid-19 pandemic in its bid to harass and silence online content creators.

Your Excellency, President Mnangagwa, this has thrown Zimbabwean media into a deep existential crisis.

All media practitioners are essential service providers and they must not be treated differently.

Ironically, when giving a national lockdown review Mnangagwa will mention nurses, doctors, police and military as essential service providers and forget to cite media practitioners, but will be facing the camera of a journalist as he addresses the nation.

Mr President, something is not right, treat media practitioners as essential service providers since they are on the deep end of this pandemic covering it on a daily basis.

Sometime this year, online content creators were denied entrance to cover the launch of the new National Data Centre, which was commissioned by Mnangagwa.

"Media ngaichiwuya" (the media can come through), one presidential guard pointing at my brother Reuben Barwe said. We had to laugh kkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk, so only Barwe represents the media industry? What a sad Zimbabwean story.

Overzealous junior officers who continue to deny online content creators access to the central business district (CBD) during Covid-19 lockdown must be integrated in journalism and media workshops, a move that can make them understand the rights of media practitioners.

There is no clear and logical communication from senior government officials when deploying the police during the period of Covid-19 lockdown.

Police must be educated specifically to have respect for content creators.

The pandemic has granted the government an opportunity to suppress and assault media practitioners.

Journalism is not a crime and it has never been a crime.

Press cards are of no use and trying to produce evidence that you are a journalist is a waste of time, police will still turn you back.

Coming from work after curfew hours as a journalist is a difficult situation.

You will be lucky to call commissioner-general Godwin Matanga and get a response. Is it lockdown or clampdown that has fuelled the war against online content creators in Zimbabwe?

As it stands, online content creators are viewed as enemies of the state and smartphone journalism is a new technology that is difficult for the government to embrace.

You cannot have a fruitful conversation with a police officer while holding a camera or a smartphone even if it's switched off, you will explain later in police custody.

Journalism has been criminalised in Zimbabwe.

Evans Mathanda is a journalist and development practitioner who writes in his personal capacity. For feedback email: evanngoe@gmail. com or call 0719770038 and Twitter @ EvansMathanda19

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