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In Zimbabwe, it's not the media that spreads the news

(Index on Censorship/IFEX) - February 17, 2012 - In places like Zimbabwe the need for “outsider” critique is essential: solipsistic regimes create complex narratives about betrayal and patriotism; no more so than in Zimbabwe. Whether material originates from “inside” or “outside” the regime can be important in establishing its veracity.

A very small minority of Zimbabweans (about 3 per cent) live in isolated elite comfort, with their cable televisions buffering the reality of Zimbabwe's weak local media situation, watching whatever they feel like, from Hollywood films to BBC to Al Jazeera and DSTV, whilst the rest of the citizens either see it with their own eyes, or rely on the local media.

And herein lies the problem: no critical, debating, investigative or contextual news gets reported.

The recent news that the government plans to invoke a peculiar mangle of laws to prevent “foreign” papers (including the Sunday Times and various South African papers) distributing unless they have local offices, means that Zimbabweans access to information is even more limited than it was previously.

For some wealthier Zimbabweans, this move is not necessarily being greeted with alarm. Linda, a Zimbabwean journalist who works across the region, says “Yes, I get foreign media, I like it. But it's a pose, getting your information from abroad. Local media is fine. We get constant Russian television, that's sufficient.” Others, however are astonished, and see this bill as an extension of the theme that Zimbabwe's media really only exists to bolster and defend the ailing, and increasingly vulnerable president Mugabe.

Zimbabwe is a peculiar beast: at one level it is now several steps away from the hyper-inflation days of 2008. But, it is still floundering in economic and social chaos. Since the introduction of the Botswana pula, the South African rand and the US dollar, trade is improving, but this is not reflected in the health of the country's media.

In the absence of spare cash to buy papers, the shoddy state of local newspapers, and the restrictions imposed on media operations, people get inventive. Kubutana stays afloat using a variety of techniques which employ both technology and people's ability to talk to each other face to face. They've changed the way milions of people vote in Zimbabwe. They provide a symbolic and actual hub for information. Still it's the life on the street that is important, the constant mingling, chatting and gossiping that keeps the public sphere alive, with a few exceptions.

In this context, the Zimbabwean market traders and street vendors are essential. They know stuff. They see it with their own eyes and they constantly have a stream of people to interact with: at a micro level they are intellectual hubs. When the licencing system of street fruit vendors forced Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi to burn himself to death, Zimbabwe's street traders clocked it.

In January 2012 in Harare, several police officers were left injured during clashes involving removing street vendors from central areas. The Zimbabwean reported that two vendors had to be hospitalised after being tortured by police, and two reporters from the local newspaper the Daily News were detained by police. But they didn't give reasons, context or views of those involved. Although the protests are a long way from sparking a revolution in Zimbabwe, the determination of vendors to fight for their livelihoods is a sign that people will speak out.

Street vendors, like many in Africa, are living a hand to mouth existence, often moonlighting several jobs, and the licencing system is a well-known ploy of governments here in the region to “clean up” their unsightly presence - particularly when there's foreign dignitaries visiting, or an African Union delegation. Even streets get renamed. It's all about looking good, yet paradoxically street vendors are essential for the large majority's needs. They only exist because of the numerous trade agreements the Zimbabwean government has signed with the Chinese to ensure there's a steady flow of buckets, washing up bowls, plates and radios, which of course local people need, want, and it's all they can afford. But still Zimbabweans are ambivalent and disparaging. “We want real money, not zhing-zhong,” says taxi driver Jourbet Buthelezi, referring to the pejorative term Zimbabweans use for sub-standard Chinese goods.

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