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Page last updated at 18:16 GMT, Tuesday, 24 June 2008 19:16 UK

Zimbabwe new media evades censors

Pictures of the opposing candidates
Zimbabwe faces an unsure future

While Zimbabwe's Zanu-PF government and its supporters have strengthened President Robert Mugabe's grip on power by cracking down on the independent media, taking measures such as pulling down satellite dishes and confiscating radios, digital media (on the internet and mobile phones) have proved to be largely beyond their reach.

New media output has reflected the various phases of the political process in Zimbabwe this year: from the humour of text messages sent in the optimistic period before the presidential and parliamentary elections on 29 March, to the grimness of the pictures uploaded to picture-sharing site Flickr in the violent period that followed.

Cyber activists, civic organisations and independent media harnessed the full suite of new media tools and applications in the run-up to those elections, and have continued to do so during its violent aftermath and throughout the countdown to the presidential run-off, scheduled for 27 June.

CONTEXT

The Mugabe government's hold on traditional broadcast media is comprehensive, following a sustained clampdown. All broadcasters transmitting from Zimbabwean soil are state-run and toe the government line. Radio is the main source of information for many Zimbabweans. Although no private stations exist within Zimbabwe itself, the UK-based SW Radio Africa has been broadcasting into the country via shortwave and the internet since 2001.

More recently it has launched a SMS (short message service) text service. Another station, Voice of the People, set up by former staff from the state-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation with funding from the Soros Foundation and a Dutch non-governmental organisation (NGO), operates using a leased shortwave transmitter in Madagascar.

Shortwave radios have been confiscated by Central Intelligence Organisation operatives; these include solar-powered and clockwork wind-up radios supplied by the Radio Communication Project (an NGO-sponsored scheme to help remote rural communities access independent radio broadcasts from outside Zimbabwe). These confiscations were reported at least as far back as December 2006. The donated clockwork radios have proved a valuable way for Zimbabweans to receive news. Batteries are either too expensive or unavailable and electricity mains supply is erratic.

Only about 2.4% of the population has a personal computer and around 11% have access to the internet (usually through internet cafes).

INTERNET RESPONSE TO MDC WITHDRAWAL

On the internet, the response to opposition leader Movement for Democratic Change Morgan Tsvangirai's announcement that he was withdrawing from Friday's run-off was swift, with a range of views being expressed. Many voiced understanding for his decision while others felt betrayed. Kubatana.net (the website of the NGO Network Alliance Project - "an online community of Zimbabwean activists") asked subscribers to text or email their reaction. The website reported: "The responses in favour of the withdrawal dramatically outweighed those who opposed the decision - by a factor of about 4:1. Those in favour of the withdrawal mainly hoped that this would ease the violence prevailing in Zimbabwe. Those opposed saw the withdrawal as a betrayal of the MDC's promise of change." The website published a few of the remarks (no names were supplied).

USE OF NEW MEDIA DURING ELECTION PERIOD

The range of new media employed since the elections were announced on 25 January includes blogs, social networking sites such as Facebook and picture-sharing sites such as Flickr, among others. Mobile phone technology in particular was widely used, with mass SMS texts being used to campaign and inform. Even e-cards, ring tones and mobile phone screensavers were used for campaigning purposes. An outstanding feature has been the use of mashups (that is, a merging of two separate web sources - Google Earth was used to create two interactive maps, with data superimposed).

Notable for their use of new media are Kubatana.net and sokwanele.com (full name Sokwanele-Zvakwana - "Enough is Enough", the website of the Zimbabwe Civic Action Support Group).

They proved adept at spreading their messages via a range of media, sometimes converged (for instance, a combination of internet-based and mobile technology). Kubatana.net also uses a mailing list server and emailed newsletters. Several forms of media have been merged on their sites; for instance video clips and Twitter messages (SMS texts as a social networking tool on mobile phones) are included in blogs.

There are also several news websites which display an independence from the Zanu-PF government not seen in the country's state-controlled press. Among these are newzimbabwe.com, zimdaily.com, zimonline.co.za and thezimbabwean.co.uk (which also distributes a newspaper in Zimbabwe and several other countries).

MOBILE PHONE TECHNOLOGY

Although mobile phones have the capacity to evade government clampdowns, their reach is hampered by access. The 2006 African Media Development Initiative report on Zimbabwe found that there are fewer than one million mobile-phone subscribers (out of a population of 12 million - although that has been vastly reduced by emigration, notably to South Africa where there are an estimated three to four million Zimbabweans).

Mobile phone masts do not cover the entire country (they are especially sparse in rural areas and in the west of the country). Service providers have acknowledged that many messages have not been delivered because of system crashes during busy periods. However, it seems that in the urban areas, mobile phones have considerable presence.

MASHUPS

Sokwanele.com created two sophisticated mashups - (the merging of two separate webs sources) - the first to map incidents of election rigging and the second, in the wake of the election, to record violence. For the first, launched on 11 March, less than three weeks before polling day, Sokwanele used data from their Zimbabwe Election Watch series to outline how the Southern African Development Community Principles and Guidelines Governing Democratic Elections document had been breached by the Zimbabwean government. The second, "Mapping Terror in Zimbabwe", launched on 18 June, is a constantly updated interactive map of political violence since the 29 March elections.

SOCIAL NETWORKING

Various groups have signed on to social networking sites such as Facebook (where there is a "Remove Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe" group) and MySpace. Sokwanele is also on Facebook. The cultural activist network "Magamba!" has a MySpace page where its members publish blogposts.

CHATROOMS

On 6 June, members of the New Zimbabwe.com chat forum spontaneously arranged a flash-mobbing campaign. They also urged a phone blitz on the Zimbabwean embassy in London. Another suggested making calls to mobiles in Zimbabwe, to urge the phone subscriber to vote for the opposition MDC, by using the standard first digits of each provider and adding on random numbers for the last six digits.

VIDEO-SHARING

YouTube features several video clips on the Zimbabwean elections, although most are from established media outlets. An address by Mr Tsvangirai has been posted by Zimbabwe Metro newspaper; it was posted a day before he withdrew from the presidential race. There are several satirical video clips featuring Mr Mugabe.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad.



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