Information Starved Zimbabweans Rely On Free Newsletters

This routine is repeated on Mondays and Fridays when two other newsletters, The Legal Monitor and The Convenor are published. They are distributed for free in both urban and rural areas.

The three newsletters have caught the attention of many people, instantly filling the yawning gap left by the newspapers shut down as a result of the country’s repressive laws.

The newsletters tackle subjects such as local government, parliamentary affairs, the Global Political Agreement, legal and court issues, activities of the Prime Minister‘s office and that of his MDC party and the constitutional making process.

Most importantly they reach far and wide than regular newspapers.

At most the Prime Minister’s newsletter can  have a print run of up to 60 000 copies while regular newspapers can only manage up to 15 000 copies and are priced out of reach for many ordinary Zimbabweans.

The newsletters are written by professional journalists. They are an easy read with short snap stories accompanied by glossy pictures.

A statement in the first copy of the Prime Minister’s newsletter read, “The newsletter update people on government work in line with the new governance culture of transparency and accountability.” The Legal Monitor prides itself for “defending the human rights of citizens” while The Convenor says it is “the people’s voice on constitutional reform.”

The Prime Minister’s newsletter is published by Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s office while the Legal Monitor is a product of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR, a civic organisation focusing on creating and promoting the culture of human rights in the country.

The Convenor is published anonymously. The newsletters are distributed in a hit and run fashion by a group of political activists usually in busy second hand markets, high density suburbs, busy public termini, public transport and bars.

The Quill Club, a journalist meeting place, in central Harare is a popular distribution centre. The place is usually bustling whenever the newsletters come in for distribution with ensuing political discussions.

MDC’s headquarters in central Harare is another distribution centre. The newsletters are strategically placed on the pavements outside the party’s headquarters for easy identification by passing members of the public.

Mbare’s Mupedzanhamo Market, a bustling second hand clothing market in one of Harare’s oldest suburbs is another popular point.

A report by Radio VOP says they witnessed a stampede when the Prime Minister’s newsletter arrived at the market for distribution recently. The newsletters exchange hands several times.  This practice of passing on a copy is repeated at home, in bars, offices and in the street making sure that the thin sheets become a sure way of keeping the public informed.

But how did they come to exist?

It all started with the PM’s newsletter, which was launched last month as a counter reaction to the bad press he received back home while on a trip to Europe and America.

“The sprouting of newsletters is a function of a suffocating media environment which is restrictive to both community and mainstream media. They are filling the gaps and creating alternatives to the state monolith and monopolies such as ZBC and the Herald,” Thabani Moyo, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Advocacy Officer told Radio VOP.

Angela Makamure, the Director of the Federation of African Media Women Zimbabwe (FAWMZ), says the newsletters are an example of what democracy should look like. “These newsletters keep us informed and give us another view that differs from the so obvious. I have read with interest the newsletters and I found them refreshing,” said  Makamure.

A Harare-based media analyst who requested anonymity told IPS that the newsletters are a conduit through which the government can communicate with the citizens and help dismantle years of media repression.

 “The people identify with them because they touch on issues that are relevant to them. They are helping them understand issues such as the constitutional making process, their involvement and expose corruption allowing them to make informed judgements,” the media analyst told Radio VOP.

Kumbirai Mafunda, who works with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), told Radio VOP that the newsletters are simply giving Zimbabweans an alternative voice.

“They are an alternative voice to the propaganda which they are being bombarded with through the state run newspapers, radio and television," Mafunda told Radio VOP.

But speaking to the Sunday Mail newspaper recently, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Media, Information and Publicity, George Charamba, questioned the legality of the newsletters.

“We have seen the publication, which purports to be from the Prime Minister’s Office, noted its circulation figures and we are looking at what the law says,” Charamba said.

The draconian Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) which regulates the operation newspapers in Zimbabwe is silent on newsletters. But despite the comments from the government official, the newsletters have become a part of the life of Zimbabweans helping to put pressure on media reforms. RadioVOP