Published by: GenderIT.org on 31/08/17
In the last week of July, Zimbabwe held its first Harare City Conversation, collaboratively facilitated by the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) and feminist organisations, Her Zimbabwe and Coalition of African Lesbians (CAL). City Conversations are one-day exchanges, hosted by APC in partnership with local organisations, which bring together activists from gender, sexuality, reproductive rights, digital and women’s rights and women human rights defenders sectors to discuss, expand and localise the Feminist Principles of the internet (FPIs). Participants for this particular conversation included feminists in journalism, visual art, internet rights activism, digital security, movement building, as well as sex and sexuality rights activism.
The Zimbabwean context of private and public expression
The lines between individuals’ private and public life are growing thinner everyday as we spend more and more time on the internet. Feminists at the conversation agreed there is general lack of awareness of the consequences and potential risks that come with being online, especially with the painful reality that “the internet doesn’t forget”.
While internet penetration in Zimbabwe stood at 50.1% at the end of 2016, the country Regulators Quarterly Telecommunications Sector performance reports1 do not give gender-disaggregated data on use. However, recent regional statistics reveal a wide gender gap in internet use on the continent in spite of women constituting almost 52% of the continent’s population. Just a simple scan of Zimbabwe indicates that fewer women own personal gadgets, are computer, security and internet literate and/or openly and actively utilise the internet to engage.
In addition – as with a number of other African countries – patriarchy is continuously visible in Zimbabwe’s private and public spheres. Media rights monitors have noted that, in general, coverage by the mainstream Zimbabwean media of the voices of women remains low, biased and in some instances, sexist.
A key consideration, as eloquently expressed by one participant, was the need for social media platforms, especially, to establish local partnerships that would simplify, promote and translate terms and conditions of their use into local languages in order to increase women’s ability to make decisions online and report abuse of their private content.
Within the ambit of access, the FPIs highlight equal access to internet, unrestricted relevant information on sexual and reproductive health and rights and the use of technology for creativity and expression, as well as challenging sexism and discrimination. On expression, the FPI calls for use of the internet to amplify women’s narratives in resistance to existing oppressive governance, religious and other extremist ideologies and monopolies that have silenced women over time. As such, it would seem access and expression are intertwined. The two also are evocative of restrictions imposed on African societies in the colonial past in respect to accessing information and free expression. As was observed during the conversation, Zimbabwe has a vast inheritance of colonial legislation – such as the Sexual Offences and the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act – that continue to dictate and contradict standards of sexual access and expression.
As such, it would seem access and expression are intertwined. The two also are evocative of restrictions imposed on African societies in the colonial past in respect to accessing information and free expression.Zimbabwe has a vast inheritance of colonial legislation – such as the Sexual Offences and the Censorship and Entertainment Control Act – that continue to dictate and contradict standards of sexual access and expression.
One of the contentious issues that was discussed was around the definition of pornography. As one participant observed, it is difficult for women whose private intimate images are leaked to the public to seek recourse to justice as they too are potentially liable for the production of ‘pornography’ through reporting such violations. Online movements online, more than just pushing a hashtag Currently the ruling and political elite in Zimbabwe are on a drive to curb free expression and organising on social media through threats against dissenting views on social media and surveillance of social pages of targeted individuals. Following years of criminalisation of offline dissent, citizens themselves have also begun to police each other online with reports being made leading to the arrests and/or questioning of individuals, or the disruption of organised resistance or action. Naturally, fewer women and sexual minorities would initiate or support politicised causes publicly.
Following years of criminalisation of offline dissent, citizens themselves have also begun to police each other online with reports being made leading to the arrests and/or questioning of individuals, or the disruption of organised resistance or action. Naturally, fewer women and sexual minorities would initiate or support politicised causes publicly.
It was agreed that that movements are not ‘just moments’ but sustained build-up of years of awareness raising for consciousness and sustained action. The significance of online social movement, #ThisFlag that started in May 2016 by a Pastor, Evan Mawarire in response to the continuing deteriorating socio- economic and political environment cannot be understated. Pastor Evan posted an emotive video online reflecting on the contradictions of the lived realities of Zimbabweans today against the promises made to the Zimbabwean people at independence in 1980. He ran parallels of this reality against the symbolism of the colours of the country’s flag. The video became the launch of a movement that commands a following of over 62,000 on Facebookand over 22,000 on Twitter. Daily members of the movement speak and organise against mis-governance in the country. Image Source: Spoondog on DeviantArt. CC license Attribution No Derivatives Non commercial. #ThisFlag movement has often been cited as having been in the forefront and most significant player in the organising of the country’s first citizen led nationwide stayaway in July 2016. Its impact cannot be measured in the absence of the context of the mobilising and organising that other sectors such as civil society, labour unions and feminist activists have initiated over the years. However, #ThisFlag popularised this resistance internationally and shone light on the multiple oppressions prevalent in Zimbabwe. Possibly the main reason why the movement is less visible just over a year after its launch is its failure to link up with older movements, that include civil society, the women’s movement and the state opposition in order to tackle relevant issues in sustained action.
Movements are not ‘just moments’ but sustained build-up of years of awareness raising for consciousness and sustained action.
Issues discussed during the Conversation confirmed that while a feminist internet is possible, the internet is an extension of the offline space; it is political and fraught with complex power dynamics. Yet amid all these challenges, a feminist internet still remains possible. The possibilities are in the ability of women and the queer community to identify the connections between offline and online realities, mark moments strategically and push for space for expression around rights on the internet and beyond.
The internet is an extension of the offline space; it is political and fraught with complex power dynamics. Yet amid all these challenges, a feminist internet still remains possible.
Following conversations at this years annual Deutsche Welle Akademie (DW) Global Media Forum held under the theme, Identity and Diversity. I have taken time to reflect on the two concepts and how they relate to each other especially with the evolution of the media globally brought about by the internet.
Having worked for a regional media rights advocacy group, the Media Institute of Southern Africa, for almost a decade now, I interact daily with the complexity of achieving diverse and plural media on the African continent. I have also taken time to reflect on diversity for the mainstream media in the Global North. What is interesting across the globe, is how the internet has made audiences active consumers,with the capability to create content that offers counter narratives, and forms new identities as geographical boundaries are continuously collapsed.
But media diversity is not just a black and white issue. It takes many forms: diversity in the ownership patterns of those licensed, diversity in the distribution of content in different languages and on different platforms and diversity in the issues covered based on both geographical and interest communities. Interest communities include gender, racial, cultural, religious and political groups. Ultimately, all these forms of media diversity must complement each other, to ensure that a wider cross-section of the society is catered for in terms of ownership of, access to and representation by the media.
Diverse mainstream media a pipe dream?
Africa has a long standing history of civil society campaigns for a media that bridges information gaps through a variety media platforms and that cater for different political, racial, religious, gendered expression and opinion. However, varying governmental, political, and corporate forces continue to hinder the achievement of a diverse media on the continent through the licensing of partisan players and/or the control of media content. Although African governments have made commitments to open up the media, continuing media rights violations over the past two decades indicate a lack of sincerity by governments to continental commitments to democratise the media. The demands for media diversity that allows for multiple opinions have remained the same from the signing of the Windhoek Declaration on promoting an independent and pluralistic media in 1991 to the current day African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms, which has come to the fore in the face of increasing internet shutdowns on the continent.
Interestingly, in some African countries, the demarcation between working for the state and the private media has split the sector to a point that journalists are reluctant to put up a unified front in the face of violations to their profession. Although South African journalists, last year stood unified in protest against censorship and suspensions, at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), it is not characteristic of journalists in other African country’s. Last week only a handful of freelance and independent journalists marched in silent protest in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare against police brutality on journalists conducting their work. Journalists from the state-media did not show their support in anyway.
At face value, the increase in the number of players in the media industry on the continent since the oldest African nation, Ghana’s independence in 1957, gives a semblence of diversity. The reality however, is that despite an increase in the number of players in both the print and broadcast media, ownership patterns, content, language and editorial policy reflect a different story.
At the centre of this challenge is the death of the public media, as it disregards its public service mandate and serves government interests. This is an unfortunate trend that has grossly affected the quality of information made available to citizens and as a result thwarted their participation in important national issues. Public media still remains the most accessible form of media for the majority on the continent. Governments interference in especially the affairs of public broadcasters has compromised the extent to which these broadcasters can genuinely represent the identity and interests of the people.
The long standing pressure for a probe into the governance, mismanagement and poor performance of SABC is a case in point. Over the years, the public broadcaster, once viewed as the best performing on the continent, has been accused of censoring news. This it has done through the ban of the coverage of opposition political parties such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and of ‘sensitive’ events such as the violent service delivery protests held in the country last year.
The scenario obtains also in Zimbabwe. In 2015, a forensic audit by KPMG of the country’s public broadcaster, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) pointed to gross mismanagement and malpractice that had resulted in its near collapse. Since the report was tabled before parliament, there has been no movement on the recommendations. The broadcaster continues to be partisan in its reportage, and is in fact expected to launch more channels on completion of the country’s digital migration from analogue to digital broadcasting. The responsible minister, has failed to appear before the Media Parliamentary Portfolio Committee four times this year alone, to respond to progress on ZBC.
Independent broadcasters have not been spared from the censorship. In July last year, the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) issued a memo to all broadcasters hindering the coverage of the demonstrations in the country sparked by a nationwide stay away popularised on social media. The authority stated that coverage of the stay away would “incite, encourage or glamorise violence or brutality”. In Zambia, government suspended the broadcasting licences of two community radio stations, Kombani Radio and Itezhi Tezhi and private television player, Muvi TV, over broadcasting of content deemed to threaten “national peace and stability”.
Media ownership is another sticky issue. The current media ownership patterns on the continent, simulate precedent colonial controls or monopolies. Over the years, African licensing authorities, appointed by and with very strong ties to the government, have tended to license mainly entities with strong political ties to the government of the day. For instance, in Rwanda the government controlled media licensing body, the Media High Council is accused of licensing mostly players that will tow the line. As Rwandas public sector remains the largest advertiser, survival of the media is, naturally, dependent on support for President Kagames government.
In Zimbabwe, the bias in the licensing of independent local commercial radio stations in March 2015, came to light, when it emerged that two of the new licensees, Capitalk FM and Nyaminyami FM, licensed under Kingstons limited, are in actual fact, under the state controlled media stable, Zimpapers. Cross ownership was initially prohibited in the country’s Broadcasting Act, but was amended and has resulted in the concentration of ownership by especially government entities.
Diversity up North?
In the Global North, diversity and plurality in are prominent in debates of representation of racial minorities, sustainability of the mainstream media and ownership.
Last year, it was interesting to observe the finalisation of the debate on whether or not to amend media laws to allow TV-newspapers the same market cross-ownership in Australia. Although the Federal Communications Commission eventually voted to continue the 40 year old ban on cross ownership, interesting issues were raised in respect of diversity. One of the arguments was that social media has brought the diversity sought in the media for years and that allowing cross ownership in the mainstream would ‘not harm’ the sector, but rather rescue failing newspapers to be more sustainable. Other quarters felt that it was important to evaluate whether corporate interests of the mainstream media were more important than preserving control of media distribution in the public interest.
Following the awarding of this year DW Press Freedom Award to White House correspondents, I was interested in exploring the extent to which proximity to the White House has enabled reporters to adequately cater for America’s diverse society. It emerges that the absence of correspondents of colour at the White House has been ‘the elephant in the room’ throughout different administrations. No doubt this has a bearing on the inclusion of minorities in mainstream policy debates. Three months after his election, President Trump, proved this to be the case after he asked African-American White House Correspondent, April Ryan to arrange a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus after she asked whether he would consult them on urban policy. President Trump implied that because April is black, she must know the blacks in the caucus, because all blacks know each other and have the same interests!
Mainstream’ media versus the ‘Peoples’ media
Speaking at the proceedings of the opening ceremony of the Global Media Forum, UNESCO Director General, Frank La Rue, noted that the mainstream media have been left behind by the coming in of social media mainly because of the desire to remain sole arbitrar of news. Social networking platforms Facebook, WhatsApp Instagram, Tumblr and Twitter, which ranked among the top ten social media applications globally in January 2017, have increased the reach of alternative news and opinions. The monopolies of officialdom, gatekeeping privileges and boundaries of editorial policy news are equally broken. Audiences generate their own content and have opinions that carry the day through retweets, shares and likes. The diversity in the social media platforms has ensured that geographic boundaries and marginal interest communities find an alternative platform to engage. This is a definite threat to the hegemony that the mainstream media has enjoyed for centuries through propaganda, misinformation and selective representation. It is no wonder that the phenomenon of ‘fake news’ has been coined to counter this ‘smaller’ more vociforous media, which is to an extent, equally as partisan.
Fluidity of identities online vs stagnant tradition identities
Could social media be the solution to our search of legitimate representation of our diverse identities as citizens and consumers of a globalised media? The mainstream media has carried traditionally acceptable free expression, gender, sexuality and political ideologies, especially in respect of national identity. Having been born and currently residing in independent Zimbabwe, I am exposed, to a highly polarised media environment, dominated by a ruling political elite, who over the years have defined and set the parameters for the identity of patriotic nationals. Attempts to ‘reclaim’ Zimbabwean identity on social media have oft been labelled a part of a regime change agenda, that seeks to reverse the gains of a ‘hard earned’ independence.
However, the internet has no respect for tradition.
By increasing their interaction time and creativity online, new media has demonstrated that audiences in their diversity are capable of shaping discourse and challenging the mainstream to step up. Because of the comfort of the ‘safety net’ of anonymity, citizens are able to form multiple identities that enable them to engage more freely on issues of public interest unfolding in their locality and globally.
To a larger extent, the emergence of the new media has provided alternatives to the mainstream conversation and makes an attempts to bridge the gaps of officialdom. However, as more and more leaders find themselves online there is a thin line between the mainstream and the alternative.
It will be interesting to observe how the case President Trump’s Twitter account unfolds after the ruling by the Federal Court a few days ago, prohibiting office bearers from blocking social media users from their accounts on the basis of their views. The major question, of course, being whether Trumps personal account will qualify as a public page as the official United States Presidential Twitter account, @POTUS does exist. It can be argued though that the president does not engage actively on public policy on the official account. So in a sense public officials may carry over the same censorship they employ in their official capacity offline on their private online accounts, despite having the opportunity to be exposed and reach out to a wider audience for diverse opinions.
Social media giving diverse identities a platform?
At a City Conversation on the Feminist Principles of Internet held in Harare recently someone said that they enjoyed Tumblr more than any other social media platform as it is more tolerant of the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer(LGBTQ) community. Another said she never engages on popular Zimbabwean Women’s Facebook group, Pahushamwari hwedu, meaning As friends, because more often than not, conversations go viral, and expose members. A number of people are on multiple WhatsApp groups primarily because they cannot be ‘themselves’ on ‘others’.
We should start thinking about whether or not social media genuine offers the space for diverse identities or is it just a temporary facade. We must also remain aware of the contradictions and implications of media organisations such as Buzzfeed, the New York Times, and the Guardian signing deals to produce live content on Facebook Live. Already Facebook has received criticism on censorship such as the pulling down of The Activist Mommy page after bible scriptures were quoted against homosexuality. The Facebook LGBTQ page is also said to be unavailable in countries where homosexuality is illegal such as Egypt, Palestine, Bahrain, Lebanon, Singapore, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates.
It may be safer to say that diversity, whether in the mainstream, online and social media must be contested and re-contested particularly as the line between the them gets thinner. Corporate interests are always at play. At the same time, the struggle for the representation of the diverse identities of consumers of media must continuously be negotiated to a point where what we consume and produce in the public interest is universally acceptable as well as openly contestable.
African governments need to be a lot more sincere about embracing the benefits of a digital broadcasting environment that the completion of the migration from analogue transmission is set to bring on the continent.
Over a decade after the World Radio Communication Conference resolution for the migration from analogue to digital broadcasting services, and two years after the International Telecommunications Unions(ITU) mandated deadline for switch off from analogue to digital television broadcasts, the continent continues to battle. Some African governments have remained extremely short-sighted about the process and continue to understand the implications, planning and funding the aspects of migration from either political and/or vested commercial interest points of view.
The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set this June as a new deadline for its states to complete migration. How the region fares will be interesting in that it will either influence or allow reflection on progress in the other regions. In East Africa Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have already fully migrated, while in the South Malawi, Tanzania and Namibia have taken the lead. However, it is the failure by the continents two strongest economies, Nigeria and South Africa to meet the ITU deadline, that is not only worrisome but remains telling of the realities and challenges in the face of this digital reality.
Politicisation of the process
Africa needs to recognise that digital migration is more of a ‘developmental’ than ‘political’ process. However, coming from a background where controls on the creation and distribution of information, opinion and the media are characteristic, it comes as no surprise that the process is entangled in political sensitivities, monopolistic tendencies and lack of consultation.
Despite their critical role in the process some African governments have kept a complete ‘grip’ on digital migration, often having a bias on select aspects of the process over the others, depending on which one best suits their interests. This has led to uneven attention on the policy and regulation, technical , consumer interests and spectrum issues of migration as they relate to migration within their jurisdictions.
Realistic opening up of funding channels
While funding of the transition and eventual switch over, have been cited as the biggest hurdles on the continent, it is also possible to conclude that this is largely because African governments have not been open enough to explore the options available.
Of late the talk is on the adoption of Public Private Partnerships (PPP) as a possible solution for the financing of digital migration in Africa. Currently Chinese pay-TV provider StarTimes Network technology Group, South African Gotv and Inview Technology Limited have emerged front runners in partnering states like Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and possibly the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Ivory Coast on digital migration efforts. However, PPPs may not be an ideal for not so liberal states, as the option is premised on a mutually beneficial agreement that allows a financier to run the channels for a period before handing them over to the government.
Keeping tabs on the way that the partnership pan out is critical at this moment as it will define their future on the continent. Already there have been hiccups as seen in the precedent breaching of a US$97million contract by the Ghanaian government with the StarTimes.
The sale of the digital dividend spectrum is another financing option. Digital dividend spectrum is made available by the transition of terrestrial television broadcasting from analogue to digital and its sale should be through public auction. So far sale of spectrum in Africa has had its fair share of controversy with the lack of transparency in its auctioning and lack of clarity the custodian of the spectrum where the broadcasting or telecommunications regulation remains fragmented.
In Nigeria former president, Goodluck Jonathan in 2015 sparked controversy when he directed the regulator, Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC) to allocate spectrum at only US$15million to internet service provider, Cyberspace, run by one of the countries richest businessmen, Jim Ovia. After Ovia returned the spectrum, its sale to MTN last year has also not been spared the controversy.
In Zimbabwe, the US$200million sale of the spectrum, said to be key in the financing of the country’s migration, went to state owned Mobile Network Operator (MNO), Netone. Following failure by the MNO to honour payment plan, government seems to be dragging its feet on the re-auctioning of the spectrum. In an appearance before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Media, Information and Broadcasting Services in July last year, Finance Minister, Patrick Chinamasa said that the value of the spectrum would have to be revisited as it had been subsidised to suit sale for a government entity.
The lack of transparency around sale of the spectrum and guidelines on regional pricing, overshadows the fact that Africa was the first region to come up with a harmonised band plan for digital dividend bands. African digital migration plans should have included clear spectrum issues – its use, timelines for clearing the band and awarding to potential buyers.
Why inclusivity matters
Buy in from all broadcasting stakeholders increases the chances of a not only smooth but a successful transition. Africa’s lack of inclusivity in the process is evident in the lack of adequate preparedness on switch off and number of courts cases over various aspects of digital migration in a significant number of countries.
In 2015, South African government departments ‘fought’ over oversight of the process, and then a year later there was
the furore between eTV, M-Net and government over the encryption of set-top boxes. In March last year, three of Kenya’s major broadcasters Nation Television , Kenya Television Network and Citizen TV stopped broadcasting after the Communications Authority switched off their analogue frequencies. In Tanzania and Rwanda there was a blackout on television as people had not acquired set top boxes by the switch off. That disputes arise with such ferocity and with much public outcry is an indication of governments poor consultation with broadcasting stakeholders and consumer rights groups from the onset.
Game of control
It is also very clear that in most jurisdictions underlying contestations around the licensing of players, and ultimately control of the sector are a reality. In Kenya, the licensing of only two signal carriers Signet, a subsidiary of the Kenyan Broadcasting Corporation and Chinese-owned company Pan African Network Group were a source of controversy as broadcasters said they lacked trust in the two. It must be agreed that while the adoption of a ‘wholesale’ distribution model as adopted by Kenya is set to ease costs on infrastructure, the fact that licensees are linked to government raises genuine concerns on censorship and control.
In Zimbabwe, the censorship and control aspects come in the form of the notable silence on the licensing of private independent television players. According to the digital migration plan, six of the twelve television channels were initially meant to be occupied by private broadcasters. However, it seems that the country’s US$200 million digital migration investment is a mere opportunity for the government to further entrench its monopoly on television broadcasting via the state controlled public broadcaster, Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation and the uniformed forces which will be awarded one of the independent channels.
Fears of liberalising the broadcasting and telecoms sectors, it seems, will haunt Africa for longer than we anticipated. They will be carried over into the digital era as measures are put in place for governments to control content distribution.
Content issues are money issues
But African governments must not forget that either way citizens will have to pay for content. Whether payment will be made through monthly subscriptions as seen in Tanzania and Rwanda or licence fees as anticipated with free digital television in Nigeria, it must be worth it! Digital migration is the opportunity that the continent has been waiting for to exploit and represents new opportunities for utilising and distributing Africa content.
What Africa needs in this new digital era are solid local content policies that will not only boost radio and television content producers and existing broadcasters economically; but also preserve African culture through the promotion of the diverse locally created content. This will undoubtedly reduce expenditure on imported programming. Content policies should take into consideration digital content production, commissioning, distribution channels that have shifted owing to the technological advancements in the industry.
To date, a snap shot of the current broadcasting industry, very few independent productions are aired on Zimbabwean radio and television, a reflection of the challenges shared at the 2014 MISA-Zimbabwe Stakeholders broadcasting conference, by Independent film producer Tapfuma Machakaire. These include among other issues, the stringent commissioning conditions and editorial control and quality of productions, as set by the broadcasting entities.
The import of digitisation in the television industry in Zimbabwe is apparent when one looks at the only television channel in the country – ZTV. Undoubtedly the challenges that ZTV faces in meeting its obligatory quota will definitely filter down to the new television broadcasting players. At this juncture what is required is diversity in television production to include a variation in content for documentaries, diversity in language use in sitcoms, diversity in socio economic and political issues in drama and even exploring reality TV that genuinely reflects Zimbabwean day to day experiences.
I could provide insights, coordination
to impact your next project/event.