What online news means for Zimbabwe

THESE days there are dozens of online news websites focusing on Zimbabwe. However, many of them are produced in exile, sometimes making them vulnerable to inaccuracies. But a growing number of reputable websites are able to publish news that would otherwise be censored, providing a voice to the voiceless.

In 2007 President Robert Mugabe’s government, facing increasing cyber scrutiny, declared it would launch cyber warfare on mushrooming online publications, most based outside the country. Forty-one news sites were targeted, but this mission failed. Websites like WorldPress.org, CNN, the US Embassy in Harare and the Washington Post were targeted. The government began eavesdropping on telephone conversations and monitoring conventional mail long before the Interception of Communications Act was crafted. The mission failed because all the websites were based outside Zimbabwe.

Today there are dozens of websites owned by exiled journalists. They provide moonlighting jobs to most journalists based in Zimbabwe. The websites have of late become more reliable when it comes to breaking news compared with the traditional print media. Most of them take an anti-Zanu-PF slant because of the grip the party has on state media. The rapid growth of these “per-story” paymasters has forced newspaper companies to draft contracts for their employees that clearly state that writing for these online publications and any other newspapers is a summary dismissal offence. Quite a number of journalists have been fired.

This situation has made it nearly impossible for newspapers to have outright exclusive stories or, better yet, break news. For, instance the most topical issue last week was the election of the speaker of parliament on 29 March, 15:00 Zimbabwe time. It used to be the norm that the state-controlled radio stations, television or the daily newspapers would break the story. But it is not the case any longer.

Online publications such as New Zimbabwe, The Zimbabwe Mail, ZimEye, Nehanda Radio and Bulawayo24 simultaneously published the story announcing the developments on the speaker of parliament issue.

What happens is reporters first write copy for the online publications before submitting copy for their day jobs. In most cases, the online copy has more depth than the newspaper copy. This is because reporters compete against each other to sell their story to the same online paymaster, who then decides to twin the stories or use one the editor thinks is worth publishing.

Therefore, by the time a newspaper hits the streets the next day its lead story is already public knowledge. In some cases people would have more information than the newspaper itself having read a number of reliable websites. For internet-savvy Zimbabweans who have smartphones, accessing these websites is now easy.

Readers and journalists alike opt for Internet news as medium of choice. Most employed journalists use pseudonyms when writing for online newspapers, largely because they fear persecution. Under the cover of their anonymous names, they get to report fearlessly and without censure on material that would not be published in a newspaper. Suing an online publication is almost impossible because most of them supply only an email address and a phone number, which can be changed at any time, in their “about us” or “contact us” sections.

However, this has certain unfortunate repercussions in Zimbabwean journalism and beyond. Some websites get to flout the basic ethics of journalism to such an extent that some are even used purely as instruments to insult Zanu-PF and the government, or serve as pseudo-propagandists for opposition political parties.

Checking facts with reporters tends to be hard, especially if the website editor is in the diaspora. Making a call to Zimbabwe from Canada to verify information before posting the story becomes a cost-benefit-analysis issue. A call can cost about $10 – roughly equal to what the reporter will be paid for the story. This kind of laxity at times gives reporters the audacity to quote people without speaking to them.

Over the years a number of stories doing the rounds on Internet publications have been publicly denounced. A classic example is that of a story about the alleged death of Mugabe’s “blue-eyed boy”, Gideon Gono, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, who was “proclaimed dead” on 24 June 2010. In less than an hour, some websites were even borrowing information from the website that “broke the story”. Wikipedia added information about Gono’s death to his profile on the site. The original source of the story was ZimDaily, but the link has since been deleted. However, websites such as ZimDiaspora followed up on the story to set the record straight.

The story increased internet traffic and most likely ZimDaily had a record number of hits. If it were true, the website would have earned a big reputation, just like the US celebrity watch website TMZ that broke the news of Michael Jackson’s death.

Of course, it wasn’t true, and it’s this intermingling of falsehoods and breaking news that has earned Zimbabwean websites their hit-or-miss reputation. There are some websites that are relied upon and some that are regarded as questionable. Websites now have to prove how legitimate they are, so as to be taken as serious sources of news. The likes of ZimOnline, which regularly breaks exclusive stories, have newspapers such as The Zimbabwean buying news from them.

Online websites make their money from advertising and need to attract a bigger readership by publishing quality news to enhance their opportunities of gaining advertising revenue. But even though online news sites are becoming popular, they are far from replacing traditional newspapers. Online publications do not have regular classified advertisements, while printed newspapers make some of their money from publishing classifieds. Companies and government departments flight tenders in the printed newspapers and, hence, they are still as popular as ever. Some weekend newspapers such as The Saturday Herald and Saturday Chronicle have pull-outs or pin-ups which have over the years proven to be favourites with teenagers.

The future of online newspapers with a Zimbabwean flavour depends partly on the political situation. As long as the government maintains a tight grip on the freedom of the press, online publications will provide a voice to the voiceless. The constant call for elections by Zanu-PF is also fodder for the online newspapers, as the Zimbabwean story is still sought the world over and the only way to reach out is through the Internet. But whatever changes the future brings, the recent popularity of mobile internet will ensure online media stick around. FAM

Vladimir Mzaca is a pseudonym for a Zimbabwean journalist who also writes under this name for the Sunday Times (SA) Zimbabwe edition. He writes for The Zimbabwean newspaper as Paul Ndlovu. He holds a degree in media and society studies from the Midlands State University.