Zimbabwe blighted by a “tsunami” of fake news

By John Masuku

Zimbabwe has once been described as a country
blighted by a ‘tsunami’ of fake news since the beginning
of a “new dispensation” following the largely
unexpected or seemingly impossible removal of former
President Robert Mugabe from power after nearly
four decades.
After the initial air-brushing of Mugabe’s ouster in November
2017 as “not quite a coup”, Zimbabwe’s almost endless political
and economic meltdown has left many Zimbabweans now
increasingly referring to the 2017 events as a coup since the
military played a central role.
Increased access to social media platforms such as WhatsApp,
Facebook and Twitter, among others, has fuelled the spread of
fake news now compared with tsunami- violent winds which cause massive
destruction and displacement.
Fake news rose towards the looming of first elections under a
new political order with President Emmerson Mnangagwa at
the helm, the leadership vacuum caused by the incapacitation
and death of founding MDC-T president Morgan Tsvangirai as
well as the deepening economic decline that has brought about
a variety of hardships.
Expectations were initially very high that the new president and
the recycled ruling Zanu(PF) party stalwarts would bring about
rapid development.
With “fake news” being generally a description of stories that
are false, but have tremendous popular appeal and are shared
quite extensively all sorts of questionable stories were sold as truths.
The period since November 2017 has been ripe for such content
largely due to polarisation in the media, with a public media
which praises the government and a private media which casts
doubt on almost everything done by the ruling establishment.

Caught in the middle
Civil society is usually caught between for trying to advocate for
laws and rights which are always interpreted by those in power

as promoting a regime change agenda.
An international commission of inquiry into August 1 postelection
violence led by former South African president Kgalema
Motlanthe observed the polarity of the country’s media.
Government confirms the existence of a divided media and its
negative effect on ethics and professionalism
Information ministry permanent secretary Nick Mangwana said:
“I think there are polarisation issues which bedevil our media
landscape pitting the anti-establishment media against the pro-government
media. This, of course, has lowered the standard of
the output.”
“(Zimbabwe’s public broadcaster) ZBC has to monitor its own
viewership and listen to its customers. They should ask themselves
why Zimbabwean viewers trust news about Zimbabwe reported
by their South African counterparts or other stations from
elsewhere outside Zimbabwe,” Mangwana said.
When mainstream media is “slow” in publishing a story about
a hot issue or breaking story, fake news takes over very fast.
Despite its shortfalls, social media should be credited for breaking
critical news stories in the transitional period, especially through
live-streaming where the public broadcaster is nowhere
to be found.
Because it took a long time for Mugabe to tender his resignation
after the surprise coup announcement by the military in November
2017, social media became the biggest and most vibrant source
of information for many people.

Social media players
Social media platforms got dominated by people who claimed
to have well connected sources with inside information about
what was going to happen next.
Fake news also spread that President Mugabe’s wife Grace had
divorced and dumped him over his decision to resign, information
which went to the extent of being cited by some reputable
international news websites.
The websites of L’Obs, Paris Match Belgium and CNews announced
confidently that Grace Mugabe, the very young and ambitious
wife of the ex-President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe – who
fell victim of a palace revolution on the 21st of November after
37 years in power – had filed for divorce, less than a month after
her husband’s fall from power.“She was very upset after her
husband handed over the power to his former Vice-President,”
states the CNews website. The information was allegedly reported
by “local media”, writes L’Obs in an article that became the
“most read” during the afternoon of December 5th.
After the November coup and with no possibility of the major
political parties Zanu (PF) and MDC forming a government of
national unity most fake news was created around the two
parties hostility towards each other, factionalism and the formation
of a transitional authority.
Some news stories suggested that Mugabe was backing the
National Patritotic Front (NPF) to the extent that he had met
MDC Alliance leader Nelson Chamisa in Dubai in order to forge
a coalition to fight his old party Zanu (PF).
MDC Alliance presidential candidate Nelson Chamisa vehemently
denied the story carried by state owned media titles that he met
former President Robert Mugabe in Dubai.
“The Herald’s fictitious story that I met Mugabe in Dubai, a place
I have never visited in my life, and its hilarious cabinet list
assigned to me; would give everyone a great laugh, only if today
was April fools day. Our SMART focus is to deliver the people’s
will, come 30 July responded Chamisa.
“Propaganda or fake news is not new. It sways and divides
opinion of the masses. It tarnishes public image of the MDCAlliance
to benefit Zanu PF whilst the same happens with the
Alliance towards the ruling party” proferred Bekezela Gumbo,
a senior researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute (ZDI)

ZEC abused
In the run up to July 30 elections, the Zimbabwe Election
Commission (ZEC) distanced itself from a ‘WhatsApp message’
which made the rounds falsely allowing WhatsApp users to cast
a vote for Mnangagwa. On the whole, Zimbabwe elections were
viewed as firmly demonstrating the incursion and perhaps even
gradual institutionalization of fake news as an actor in modern
politics, particularly during national elections.
ZEC, and its top officials, was subject of numerous fake news
on unproven allegations of rigging fuelled by its lack of
transparency on its guidelines and the pace at which presidential
results were being released.This despite public court processes
which ruled differently.
On the economic front social media sites were during the July
30 elections awash with information purportedly issued by the
central Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) announcing a comeback
of the Zimbabwe dollar which was phased out in 2009 due to
hyperinflation. The RBZ immediately dismissed the ever recurring
claim as false and malicious.
The Motlanthe commission of inquiry had its fair share of ridicule
through fake news, with people questioning the rationale of its
mandate and the integrity of some of its members and support
staff.
A political analyst who followed the commission’s live broadcasts
commented:
“Because of some societal divisions which need to be healed in
Zimbabwe some Zanu(PF) testifiers at public televised hearings
did not see many soldiers on the streets on August 1 while their
MDC counterparts said there were not aware of any violent
demonstrations on the same day.
Private individuals have not been spared with a barrage of
damaging fake news. Musicians, actors, sporting personalities
and businesspeople have made numerous headlines on social
media and some untraceable news websites in stories that have
proved to be false.
Popular Chimurenga music guru Thomas Mapfumo fell victim to
fake news several times before ending his extended exile in the
United States with the advent of the new dispensation.He thus
refuted some homecoming claims prior to that:-
“Chimurenga Music Company wishes to dismiss messages and
a video circulating on social media purporting that Thomas
Mapfumo will be performing in Harare in December as fake
news. For the record there is no such show planned, the video
circulating was recorded lwhen Mukanya was travelling to UK
for a show. The posters are not only fictitious but misleading to
millions of our fans in Zimbabwe longing for Mukanya’s Bira in
Zimbabwe. If Mukanya has a show it will be communicated
through official channels”.

Is there a solution?
Only time will tell whether the controversial Cyber Security Bill
under consideration will be the saviour in countering fake news
in a free media operating environment.
However, media advocacy organisations such as the Voluntary
Media Council of Zimbabwe (VMCZ), Factchecking platform
ZimFact, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA Zimbabwe)
and Media Monitors, among others, have a mammoth task of
educating the public and lawmakers about how properly reformed
media laws can minimise fake news and increase trust in the
public news networks.

John Masuku,a broadcast journalist is the Executive Director of Radio
Voice of the People (VOP). He is also a fellow of the Centre for
Media, Data and Society at the Central European University(CEU),
Budapest Hungary.

This article was first published in “Change of Guard-Zimbabwe Media-

Mugabe to Mnangagwa Transition”in the section on Fake news, disinformation, trolling
and other issues online published by Media Monitors.