By Takura Zhangazha
The Minister of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services, Professor Jonathan Moyo has announced, with a little bit of drama, that he is now going to be directly using social media platforms Facebook and Twitter. Just in case he tweets that his announcement was without drama, it would be useful to point out that his joining the social media bandwagon has very little to do with the ‘Arab Spring’.
To the owners of the applications, he is probably a great marketing addition to their statistical value vis-à-vis what they probably consider to be a relatively small Zimbabwean market.
For keen social media users, both in the Diaspora and at home, this will be viewed as a chance to get in touch or probably just monitor his accounts to know about his personal views or government policies.
There are however a number of striking ironies to his actions. The most glaring one is that in general, the minister presides over a censored state controlled media. Particularly where it comes to the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and the stock exchange listed Zimbabwe Newspapers Group (Zimpapers). Very few stories of dissenting voices are carried by these two media houses. In the case of the ZBC no opposition rally, meeting or press conference has ever been carried live withe on radio or television. Yet the minister responsible for them has taken to these new media platforms that function largely without direct and evident censorship.
This is not to say he has no right to be there. He very much does both in terms of his constitutional right to express himself, access information and associate with whoever he wishes to. The only catch is that he is responsible for the media in cabinet and with limited little to show by way of reforming it to allow the greater majority of Zimbabweans to enjoy those rights that he will most certainly have on Facebook and Twitter. This is more ironic in that even if he were to claim that government controlled media has editorial independence, it has not demonstrated so under his current tenure.
Or if alternatively he were to argue that reforming the mainstream and still much more influential media is work in progress, indications are that government is not keen on same said reform. Ditto the cabinet ambiguity over criminalization of freedom of expression. And initial ruling party resistance to the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry (IMPI) that he appointed last year.
The jury may still be out on the latter panel until its report is made public but the continued state control over the media can only indicate that whatever its recommendations, government will still have a benevolent attitude toward media freedom. Especially where it concerns the state media and criminalization of journalism.
Apart from this particular irony of seeking to express himself where others have had to resort to for lack of mainstream media options under his purview, there is the fact of government hostility toward new media technologies and ‘shadowy’ content or characters.
A continuing case before the courts is that of Sunday Mail editor, Edmund Kudzayi who is facing trial for alleged involvement in the Facebook character, Baba Jukwa. It is a landmark one that will have far reaching ramifications for users of social media in Zimbabwe. Not that the minister can change the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act without his principals consent, but one can be forgiven for not missing the irony.
Finally, an interesting take on this would be that academic adage of the ‘medium is the message.’ While it is normal for cabinet ministers the world over to have social media accounts and expand their reach, a majority Zimbabwe’s government ministers do not do so. In taking to social media perhaps Professor J. Moyo is signifying a change in government attitude or at least wishing for it. Even after he made comments about social media ‘malcontents’ in the wake President Mugabe’s recent and unfortunate ‘carpet mishap’.
Government may be reluctantly moving from being regularly dismayed, angry and repressive about the medium of the internet to accepting the inevitability that it will inevitably form a key component of the holistic cultural lifestyles of Zimbabweans. The medium has perhaps become the message. And it comes from those countries that our government regularly refers to as ‘imperialists.’ Either way, one can only wish him happy surfing!
*Takura Zhangazha a media activist and historian writes here in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)