The power of information and the positive change that it brings
Sitting on a shriveled animal skin mate and dressed in tattered and dirty old clothes, Soneni Moyo or Gogo Moyo as she is affectionately known in her village, ponders over the tough times her people are going through and reminisces the good old days when she and fellow villagers would gather once every week to eat, drink and make merry.
In her twilight age of 75, Gogo Moyo has no knowledge of what has hit her community, leaving its people surviving like wild animals. From the colonial days, Gogo Moyo and her fellow villagers in Binga district have had little or no interaction with government officials and neither have they had access to any government information and services.
“The only time we see government officials is during election campaigns. They come driving their big cars and tell us that if we do not vote for certain politicians, there will be serious consequences for us,” says a dejected Gogo Moyo.
Flanked by her three great grandchildren, Gogo Moyo peers forlornly at the ill-looking maize crop in the farm surrounding her three huts. These three huts has been the entire home she has ever known. She has voted in all the presidential and local government elections since independence and has witnessed the skullduggery that characterises Zimbabwean elections. She is as ignorant of Zimbabwean politics as the majority of her fellow villagers living in this remote district of Binga situated approximately 200 kilometers away from Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe and the nearest town to Binga.
Binga district lies in the peripheral Zambezi valley and the resident BaTonga people are known to be expert fishermen in the famous Zambezi River and hunters in the sprawling valley. The district is one of the extreme cases in Zimbabwe were people are deprived of their right to seek, receive and impart information. Binga has an estimated 200,000 people. The villagers are known for smoking the traditional dagga pipes. The traditional practice of knocking off the front tooth of married women is still rampant. Married women still spend their leisure time smoking dagga, drinking home made beer and dancing to traditional music. Boys and girls still roam the villages scantly dressed in old rags, with little opportunities of ever going to school. Development workers have had a hard time to access the people of Binga.
“Despite all the colourful speeches that we hear from politicians during election campaigns, we are in actual fact cut off from the rest of the world. There are no schools nearby, the roads are poor and we have no clinics. We have no access to local radio and television. We do not know why we have to vote and the effect of that vote,’ adds Gogo Moyo.
In a true democratic society, the media is an important and integral tool for informing, educating and entertaining citizens. For that to happen effectively, there is need for diversity and plurality within the media sector so that all interested groups are represented and have access to the media. Communication with the rest of the country and the world is a big challenge for the people of Binga. Villagers rely on the few people who visit urban areas once in a while, bringing old newspapers. With the majority of people in Binga illiterate, radio and television broadcasting in the local Tonga language would be the ideal source of information.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the media is a fundamental element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and underpins democratic freedoms such as the right to form political parties, share political ideas, query the actions of public officials, and so on. Without access to information, the people of Binga cannot put their vote into content. They have no means of judging the performance of their leaders, a factor that is much favored by scrupulous politicians who do not want their dirty linen to be washed in public.
The idea of media as a platform for democratic debate embraces a variety of overlapping functions. Media, in this context, refers to all those channels that carry news and public information. The media may be seen as: a channel of information and education through which citizens can communicate with each other, a disseminator of stories, ideas and information, a corrective to the “natural asymmetry of information” (Islam 2002:1) between governors and governed.
The media is also a means by which a society learns about itself and builds a sense of community, and which shapes the understanding of values, customs and tradition and a vehicle for cultural expression and cultural cohesion within the nation.
According to Frank Jabson, a Programme Manager with a local non-governmental organisation, failure to provide information facilities and services to the people of Binga by the government is a violation of their right.
“Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, of which Zimbabwe is a signatory states that ‘every person has the right to give and receive information freely, and to express his/her opinion.’ Article 20 (1) of Zimbabwe’s Constitution states that ‘no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to seek, receive and impart information without interference.’ Refusing Zimbabweans a license to operate radio or television station is therefore a clear violation of our constitution,” said Mr. Jabson.
Mr. Jabson said that limited of access to information by the people of Binga is a huge factor contributing to the low level of development in the remote district.
Providing access to information to all Zimbabweans has never been President Robert Mugabe’s priority. President Mugabe was quoted by the editor of the now defunct Horizon Magazine as saying, “We are not ready to open the airwaves to private enterprise because it is a powerful tool in educating the people,” (Dancing out of Tune, 1999). This has spelt doom to the people of Binga because the government-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation is financially crippled to service the whole country and the Ministry of Information can not register new players in the broadcast industry.
Some people in Binga have however managed to acquire radio and television sets that are powered by solar power or car batteries. But all that they get to know is not from Zimbabwe. Transmedia, the state arm responsible for radio and television transmission revealed recently that their operations were hamstrung by financial challenges and as such only 70 percent of the country can access services. Villagers in Binga rely on signals from surrounding countries like Zambia, Botswana and South-Africa.
President Mugabe’s hatred for the press is also well documented. Addressing his party, the Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF) Central Committee in March 1999, Mugabe described the private press as ‘filthy tabloids, clearly of the gutter type, edited and run through fronts of young Africans employed as puppet editors and reporters and in some cases these are also their homosexual partners.’ (Dancing out of Tune, 1999)
The consequence of the media blackout in Binga is dire. Pandemics such as the Human Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV), cholera and Tuberculosis have ravaged the villagers. According to the Zimbabwe Human Development Report 2003, there is only one AIDS service organisation (ASO) operating in Binga. If Binga villagers had access to the mass media or a community radio or television, they would be aware of where to access services for combating the spread of the diseases.
“There is not much that we know about the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). People here have a lot of explanations about various symptoms of HIV. We do not know where we can get tested and where to get support in our country. We know more about what is happening in South Africa than what is happening in our country,” says Gogo Moyo.
Opportunistic politicians have seized the opportunity to get cheap parliamentary tickets. The majority of them residing in urban areas have had field days in Binga, bombarding hapless villagers with all forms of political diatribe against perceived opponents, peddling outright lies and empty promises to con villagers of their vote. Twenty nine years after political independence, no politician has taken any serious efforts to empower the people of Binga with relevant technologies and services for them to actively participate in democratic processes. Zimbabwean politics is not commonly for the upright, and some politicians are grateful that Binga is fertile with ignorant villagers who have no access to information.
The hostile media laws in Zimbabwe have made it impossible for civic societies to establish community radios and community newspapers. Radio Dialogue, a community based radio station had offered to provide services but was shut down by the government for ‘operating illegally’. The government is also in an expensive programme of tempering with airwaves from radio stations based outside the country like the Voice of America based in the United States of America, Zimbabwe Community Radio based in the United Arab Emirates and Shortwave Radio Zimbabwe based in the Netherlands.
The stringent media laws were crafted recently after the long serving ZANU PF party had realised that it was losing the electorate. A number of Zimbabwean entrepreneurs were venturing into the media business and a number of privately owned radio and television stations were rendering the government controlled media useless. In 2001, the state newspaper, The Herald had a print run of 65 000 copies a day, but when a privately owned newspaper, the Daily News was launched, The Herald print run dwindled to less than 10 000 copies a day with the Daily News print run going to 75 000 copies a day. Advertisers abandoned The Herald and this send shockwaves within the ruling elite. The same scenario was also availing in the electronic media with the launching of Radio Dialogue, FM 90 and Joy Television debilitating the state controlled institutions.
The state response was swift. Three Acts of parliament were passed. These are the Broadcasting Services Act, the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act. All private radio and television stations were deemed illegal and were shut down. Four privately owned newspapers were closed for operating illegally. This spelt doom for Gogo Moyo and her fellow villagers. The thriving media in the country would have resulted in the establishment of community radio stations in Binga and could also have enlightened the electorate in the area.
Politicians, including the current president, Robert Mugabe have taken the opportunity to use the state controlled media to spread propaganda and hate speech to mislead the electorate during election campaigns, making false accusations about his opponents and portraying himself as the saviour of the nation. At one campaign rally, Mugabe was quoted by the state controlled newspaper, The Herald, telling the electorate that “the British sought an organisation that was constantly quarrelling with government. They found Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) then led by (Morgan) Tsvangirai. The British raised funds to support such puppet organisations and parties.”
It is also very common to meet people in the remote rural areas saying that if President Mugabe loses elections, the British and Americans will come to take over the country and that political violence in the country is caused by the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) bandits trained in Botswana. The people in the remote rural areas also believe that if ZANU PF loses elections, the country will go back to war.
These are statements that are peddled by politicians who take advantage of the lack of access to alternative media by the people.
At one campaign rally, a War Collaborator of the 1970s liberation war, who is a ZANU PF official was quoted by the state controlled newspaper, the Chronicle, telling villagers that “voting for Morgan Tsvangirai (MDC President), an imperial puppet, is the same as voting for homosexuality’ (The Chronicle 13-06-08). Such blatant statements by government officials to people who have no alternative media are a clear infringement of systems that govern democratic participation.
In 2008, the country had a national election to elect the country’s president and parliamentarians. President Mugabe lost the first round in the widely condemned elections. The run-off failed to take place after the opposition withdrew, citing widespread violence. Under pressure from the international community, Mugabe agreed to a power sharing deal with the opposition. Article 19 of the Global Political Agreement that brought about the unity government between the Movement for Democratic Change and ZANU PF recognises the importance of the right to freedom of expression and the role of the media in a multi-party democracy.
The article notes that while the provisions of the Broadcasting Services Act permit the issuance of licences, no licence other than to the public broadcaster have been issues. The parties to the Global Political Agreement called for immediate processing of applications for broadcasting from private players.
This could have been an opportune moment for the establishment of radio and television stations servicing the whole country, including Binga. However, a year after the power sharing agreement was signed, the country has not shifted an inch in terms of making information accessible to villagers in remote areas.
“All decisions are made on our behalf because we are not aware of what is happening in the country. The few reports that we get through the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) is not enough for us to make informed decisions,” says the dejected Gogo Moyo.
With the on-going bickering between the two main political parties, ZANU PF and the MDC, it will not be any time soon before the people of Binga can have access to local news.
The Tonga people are very talented story tellers, but that will surely die if no efforts are taken to document and preserve their stories and share them with the rest of the country.
The people of Binga do not want to be only recipients of news. The little exposure they have had with the media has made them appreciate the power of information and the positive change that it can bring. There is therefore an urgent need to build local capacities and abilities of marginalised and vulnerable groups in the strategic and creative use of communication to express their needs, to make their voices heard, to manage their own communication, and to participate fully in their own development and bring about long-term social change.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 31 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most forgotten corners of the world. Meet Us.