Published by: GenderIT.org on 07/09/17
Maggie Hazvinei Mapondera is a Zimbabwe born hybrid feminist, perching at the intersection of grassroots feminism, feminist communication and movement building.
In this interview, Maggie reflects on the current status of technology and the internet in relation to the feminists movement building and women’s everyday organising and participation globally.
Koliwe Majama: Lets talk about your feminist activist journey. What is your passion and drive?
Maggie Mapondera: It’s been a strange journey; And I think what makes it strange is that I have never really restricted myself to one sector or place. My feminist activism dates back to my Undergraduate years as student at Yale University in the United States of America. There I started organising with homeless women who were either struggling or recovering from substance abuse and poverty. The experience was the first synergy between my writing and my creative side as an activist. I organised creative writing workshops with and for the women. It was then that I discovered that creative writing can, in fact be an integral part of how women can build voice, identify the root cause of their issues and find ways to organise around them.
I organised creative writing workshops with and for the women. It was then that I discovered that creative writing can, in fact be an integral part of how women can build voice, identify the root cause of their issues and find ways to organise around them.
I then moved to a feminist movement-building organisation Just Associates (JASS) where I did communications. There was a connection there for me because JASS was focusing on Her-stories as a means for individual women and women’s communities to tell the story of their struggle, and not only telling them to make their experience visible to others, but to analyse them and collectively organise themselves and fight for change. Today I find myself with Womin, an organisation that organises frontline peasant and working class women across Africa around land rights and climate justice. Everyday I interact with the challenges women face as the climate changes their livelihoods, land and capacity to provide for themselves and their families. My passion is about women’s stories and the power those stories have to change the world. If we could find a way to collectively tell a different story of the world we live in, then maybe we can change things.
KM: What do stories contribute to the movement?
MM: The women’s movement is rooted in women’s stories. A lot of women are at the cross cutting edge of some of the deep issues that the women’s movement is challenged with today. They face patriarchy daily and in some cases have to deal with even more dangerous issues – such as the consequences of the pursuit of capital by governments and corporates at the expense of their bodies, their lives and their rights.
They face patriarchy daily and in some cases have to deal with even more dangerous issues – such as the consequences of the pursuit of capital by governments and corporates at the expense of their bodies, their lives and their rights.
So the women’s movement has to challenge itself, and think outside silos and search for the interconnectedness of these stories so that we have a full story. Otherwise we keep going two steps forward, and five steps back, as we continue thinking that issues such as the political participation of women is important because we think representation in government will take us where we need to go. But it is not enough to have the story. Her-stories need to feed our activism, action, advocacy and analysis and we have to keep growing that analysis, sharpening it and nuancing it. Otherwise what is the point? We begin to look like we are telling stories and sharing stories for the sake of stories as though that is the end. It is not the end. Across the board as a movement, we need to push ourselves and ensure that these stories are not just in vogue, but make a difference.
it is not enough to have the story. Her-stories need to feed our activism, action, advocacy and analysis and we have to keep growing that analysis, sharpening it and nuancing it.
KM: In general, is there a fair representation of women online?
MM: I don’t think it is fair at all. Especially when you look at countries like Zimbabwe and the realities of inequitable access between men and women. A huge proportion of women are not represented in online spaces largely because of their socio economic status. I am not convinced that our goal should be to get those women online. Rather what we should do is broaden the way that we connect our conversations online with the traditional and ‘conventional’ ways such as radio and television so that our messages filter through to corners we do not usually reach. That way we would have brought those critical voices on board. We cannot allow ourselves to think that the internet is the ‘Be all and end all’ of communication. We have to be context appropriate, and appropriate to the people that we are speaking to. We must think about whether the woman who tells her story, her geographical and/or interest community will have access to it. What is the point of getting her story on the internet if it cannot change her immediate and country context? We have to be strategic about how we communicate in order to fairly represent women online.
We cannot allow ourselves to think that the internet is the ‘Be all and end all’ of communication. We have to be context appropriate, and appropriate to the people that we are speaking to. We must think about whether the woman who tells her story, her geographical and/or interest community will have access to it.
KM: What is the best way of connecting the ‘unconnected’ especially in repressive states?
MM: We always have to be creative and sharp about our class analysis because it informs how access to the internet is different for all women. Access to the internet will vary based on geographical location, race, class and age. Given this reality, the women’s movement must organise itself so that, as much as possible, we reach each other as best we can and have the ability to share our experiences horizontally. For instance, I don’t think women use popular social media platforms, like WhatsApp, to their greatest potential. In Zimbabwe today, you will find that WhatsApp is the most popular mode of communication and accessing information. The sheer number of chain messages my mother sends me everyday about the most random things – whether religious or political, is amazing. Most of the information that I received about the street protests against bond notes, the nationwide stayaway, arrests of activists last year, organised by under the #ThisFlag and #Tajamuka movements, for instance, I got from Whatsapp. So that is the platform where Zimbabweans share opinions, mobilise and organise. This has exposed them to a lot of insecurities, and as the women’s movement we need to recognise and appreciate this. What I see as critical in times such as these is to find a way of getting women that are connected to understand how vulnerable they are when they are online. We also need to prepare ourselves to support them to understand their individual responsibility to consciously protect their rights to privacy, and consciously respond to safety and security online.
What I see as critical in times such as these is to find a way of getting women that are connected to understand how vulnerable they are when they are online. We also need to prepare ourselves to support them to understand their individual responsibility to consciously protect their rights to privacy, and consciously respond to safety and security online.
KM: Do you see potential for women to organise online?
MM: It has been and remains really exciting to see my mothers and my grandmothers using WhatsApp – being so proficient and sharing information- I mean they use it more than I do! So there is something there, obviously -organising opportunities. However they come with their own complications such as security, which is something that we should begin to talk about. It is also clear from the crackdown that the people in power in Zimbabwe have identified WhatsApp as a politically dangerous terrain. It says something is going on in this WhatsaApp, you want to call it – revolution, that is dangerous to those in power. So given that the people in power across the African continent see the dangerous side of the internet, we need to see what is and what is not possible in order to use, especially social media, strategically and in a way that is useful for our movement. There are possibilities and there is potential everywhere on different platforms. The movement just needs to harness these opportunities if that is the way more people can get the message.
Given that the people in power across the African continent see the dangerous side of the internet, we need to see what is and what is not possible in order to use, especially social media, strategically and in a way that is useful for our movement.
KM: Can the internet enhance African women’s participation in very contentious women’s rights issues?
MM: The internet has limits. To be honest, there is nothing better than opening up spaces and getting women together physically so that they see each other face to face and talk. However, it is not practical given the fast shifting context, which has made the terrain so fraught and dangerous for feminist activism. Therefore if we are to venture into the sensitivities of our womanhood, we have to be agile and ready with an analysis to deal with and respond to threats quick and effectively. The other dangerous aspect in as far as women’s participation, and closely related to inequality of access, is that those with access seem to be talking to themselves all the time. I have observed that, across the different social media platforms, be it Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, the same people follow and interact with each other. In the end, it becomes a bit of an echo chamber. This, I think, can be detrimental to one’s activism and feminism; especially if those women are not forcing themselves to grow by challenging themselves enough to reach out to, or be in solidarity, in real ways, with women on the ground. So as the women’s movement we must challenge ourselves not to get trapped in the echo chamber of ourselves.
I have observed that, across the different social media platforms, be it Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr, the same people follow and interact with each other. In the end, it becomes a bit of an echo chamber. This, I think, can be detrimental to one’s activism and feminism; especially if those women are not forcing themselves to grow by challenging themselves enough to reach out to, or be in solidarity, in real ways, with women on the ground.
KM: Do you see the women’s movement benefitting from the internet?
MM: There are examples where movements have harnessed the internet, and especially social media to amplify, magnify and voice out an issue so that it gains traction. For instance, South Africa’s #FeesMustFall obviously did not just start online. There was students’ activism on the ground around the issue for a long time. Students in South African universities were passionately angry about the injustices in university institutions for a long time, and yes! the hashtag really caught fire. It gave visibility to the students activism that has continued offline meaning the hashtag was not the sole reason that the campaign was ‘big’. The hashtag allowed the movement to gain a presence beyond the South African borders, which it may not have had without social media. The same can be said of #BlackLivesMatter. People have been organising against racism in the United States for a long time. This is not to say that the hashtag is insignificant. No!
It is important that long after that the hashtag has gone or been changed to something else, those movements remain and continue to grow. All these online movements were informed by the real and lived experiences of the people on the ground.
It still is a powerful moment and movement that has given birth to other movements. However, it is important that long after that the hashtag has gone or been changed to something else, those movements remain and continue to grow. It is not possible for something that happens in isolation online to be sustainable. There has to be the on-going conversation because things always have to be that grounded. People always make reference to, for instance, the Arab Spring, as a phenomenon that happened online. But those people had been organising against oppression for many years. All these online movements were informed by the real and lived experiences of the people on the ground. So even for the women’s movement, it is such experiences that should prompt us to connect with other women. This can be done ether online or in other ways, so that when social media comes along, it is just to amplify and spread the message.
KM: What role(s) do social media play in movement building?
MM: We must not see one strand of the strategy for any movement as the end. Everything must be a means. If we reach an end then what are we doing? We will never reach an end in the struggles against oppression. We have to continue going back, wait, something happens, then we come back and analyse then we move forward. Otherwise we become static and stagnant. Social media becomes a part of the strategy and it plays a complimentary role.
KM: What challenges (if any) are women facing online?
MM: Unlike men, most women do not have the confidence of masculinity or advantage of patriarchy to say whatever we want without fear. We have to build a support base for women to share more online, and to feel more confident to speak out. It is hard, especially with social media, as there can be a lot of backlash. People will jump on you if they feel that you are wrong or that your analysis is weak. As you can imagine, for women its even more dangerous So imagine being a radical feminist, deal with radical opposition politics as a woman – backlash and criticism cannot be avoided. What is important to protect each other by creating both private and public platforms of different kinds to foster conversations among ourselves and with other people that we do not ordinarily interact with daily.
Personally I do not see analysis of class, race or sex and sexuality of different contexts in conversations online. Instead, most times, there is a narrow mainstream line of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in the world today.
We must sharpen one another like we sharpen knives by having the courage to say, ‘Hey my Sister! You need to step up on this one’. From there, we need to put ourselves in spaces where the backlash will be inevitable because our voices need to be heard there. This is where our challenge lies now. Only certain groups of women get their voices heard in those spaces and I am not sure that the agenda they push is indeed the ‘politics’ that we can confidently say represents the women’s movement. Personally I do not see analysis of class, race or sex and sexuality of different contexts in conversations online. Instead, most times, there is a narrow mainstream line of womanhood and what it means to be a woman in the world today.
KM: How do you think the feminists movement can touch base with the different constituencies and make their presence online more representative?
MM: We must interrogate each other on the extent to which, as individuals, we are ‘representative’ of the constituencies that we say we represent. On this one we have to be honest with one another and appreciate that it is necessary to be critical if we are to move forward. Sisters in JASS Meso-America use a Spanish term, ‘Critica Amorosa’, which, translated, means to love criticism. So, for instance, if you saw Maggie on Twitter speaking to the women’s situation in Zimbabwe as the country heads towards an election, you can be more upfront and remind her that her work is mostly based in the capital city, Harare and outside the borders of the country. That way Maggie will be clearer that maybe her scope is not deep enough as she cannot really speak on behalf of the experiences woman in rural Murehwa and their concerns about the upcoming election. So how do we bring the women from Murehwa and make them part of the conversation? That is the work we have to do and its hard work, but it is important work.
We have to be honest with one another and appreciate that it is necessary to be critical if we are to move forward. Sisters in JASS Meso-America use a Spanish term, ‘Critica Amorosa’, which, translated, means to love criticism.
KM: Describe the way women’s movement works online
MM: I struggle with the ‘performative’ nature of conversations online as women posture and say things that they actually may not believe. We see multiple identities online that conflict with those we interact with offline. Agreed, it can be quite liberating to have all these different identities, but once in a while, one has to step back and ask oneself what it is exactly that they believe in. People do and say things just for ‘clicks’ and they use this to prove the success of their moment or movement. This is not our success. Our success as the women’s movement lies in what we have done to change the lives of women on the ground. Sure, the fact that we have had conversations on sensitive issue that we are passionate about, is a success. You can mark it as a ‘little outcome’, but that cannot be it.
KM: So is a feminists internet possible?
MM: Weeeellll! [Laughs] I have had had time to reflect deeply on this since the City Conversation on the Feminists Principles of the Internet here in Harare. Having principles is a powerful thing as it gives us something to look towards and fight for. The principles are key in that they will give us a code in which to function as feminists. We can try and create the space of a feminist internet, knowing though that the reality of a feminist internet is quite far in the future – and that is still okay.
The principles are key in that they will give us a code in which to function as feminists. We can try and create the space of a feminist internet, knowing though that the reality of a feminist internet is quite far in the future – and that is still okay.
In general, my take way, and this is purely based on my current work with community activists, is that the internet is not the ‘hugest’ of priorities for the majority of women on the African continent. My major concern for feminism in this digital era is the failure to reach the relevant audiences. Everyday stories are told and discussions are held that only a certain set of people can access. This is the dilemma of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs). I see the possibility of the extension the ‘NGO-isation’ of movement online if we do not take heed. Being online gets us funding because of the exposure and visibility, but the communities who are the reason we can produce this content and for whom this content is supposed to serve, don’t always have access to it.
KM: Thank you Maggie for your time MM: Thank you
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.
Acknowledgement: MISAZIM Free online expression and opinion under threat Debates related to use, misuse and regulation of the Internet have triggered interesting conversations especially in relation to free expression as a critical digital rights issue in Zimbabwe. By far the most interesting development in the past six years is the growth in the reliance or usage of the internet and information and communications technologies by Zimbabweans. Zimbabweans have embraced technology as a more open and reliable alternative means of communication. It is also being used as a tool for mobilisation and participation, social interaction, accessing news and financially transacting. If the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) report is anything to go by, most Zimbabweans access the internet via mobile phones. This also comes at a time when Zimbabwe awaits finalisation of the national ICT policy and enactment of the cybercrime laws, which will regulate the establishment, operations and use of the internet. Government has committed to having the laws enacted by the end of the year. In coming up with the proposed laws, the government should therefore be mindful of the internet regulation principles agreed to at the Internet Governance multi-stakeholder conference hosted by MISA-Zimbabwe on 21 August 2015. Of particular concern are the arrests of people expressing themselves through the WhatsApp platform since the beginning of the year. MISA-Zimbabwe has recorded four such arrests. The arrests, which included that of politicians, law enforcement agents and ordinary citizens, were in terms of Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (CODE). This provision criminalises the making or publishing of a false, abusive, indecent or obscene statements against a sitting or acting president that may encourage feelings of hostility, hatred, contempt or ridicule towards them. The most recent arrest is that of 46-year old Ministry of Agriculture employee, Ernest Matsapa who was arrested over an audio-visual he sent on a WhatsApp group. The audio-visual allegedly depicted President Robert Mugabe as incapacitated and a burden to the ‘majority of people, including his family’ due to his age. In this case, the state alleged that the audio-visual was denigrating to President Mugabe and was likely to interfere with the public’s comfort, convenience and peace. He was therefore charged with ‘criminal nuisance’. Fears that the government is determined to curtail free expression online were heightened by President Mugabe’s pronouncements earlier this month when he called for the adoption of the Chinese firewall in Zimbabwe to control activity on social media. Encouraging though are the judicial peeks into the constitutionality of some of the insult laws. While judgment was reserved in two cases pertaining to the presidential insult laws, observations made by the Constitutional Court questioning the constitutionality of the offence raises hope for the repealing of the founding Act. The two cases include the case against former Nyanga North MP, Douglas Mwonzora accused of labeling President Robert Mugabe a “goblin” during a rally in 2009 and that of Bulawayo artist, Owen Maseko who was charges with insulting President Robert Mugabe through “offensive” paintings of the Gukurahundi massacre. The criminalisation of citizens’ expression on online platforms that they trust to be secure enough to engage and access information on social, economic and political issues, is an unfortunate development. It has serious implications on the use of technologies and their impact for greater democratic citizen engagement and the development of the country. This is something that should be taken seriously particularly at this point in time when the country is already in a pre-2018 election mode. Surveillance and monitoring of activity on applications such as WhatsApp is technically difficult for internet service providers to monitor activity on it. Particularly so after the application introduced an end-to- end encryption of its services. However, there are other impediments that enable the continued clampdown on online opinion and expression. Firstly , it is us citizens who make these clampdowns easier as we voluntarily spy and report on each other. It is also important to note that following a tip-off, the transmission of insult messages can be charged under Section 88 of the Postal and Telecommunications Act (PTA). This should also be viewed in the context of the statutory obligations of mobile network service providers in that regard. A clear demonstration of this is the 2015 arrest of Tatenda Benjamin Machingauta after he sent a message to a WhatsApp group insulting Buhera South legislator, Joseph Chinotimba’s beard. Econet, reportedly co-operated in that regard by submitting details of the sender leading to his arrest. Undoubtedly as we draw closer to the 2018 election, Zimbabwean internet users being aware of their vulnerability online, will try to play it safe, by either self-censoring or simply not engaging on critical conversations that have a bearing on their livelihood. What is critical at this stage is recognition that for the internet to reach its fullest potential of allowing Zimbabweans to enjoy their human rights, internet users must be aware of their rights to expression online and demand its decriminalisation. This should be within the ambit of the broader legislative reform agenda given that rights restricted offline through a litany of laws can also be eroded online under the very same Acts by the ruling elite.
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.
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