Zimbabwean-born journalist and rights activist Koliwe Majama advocates democratic governance of the digital and media sector. In this interview, she speaks about digital rights and trust in multi-stakeholder processes.
Koliwe Majama is a Zimbabwean-born journalist, digital and media rights activist with over 15 years of experience. In her current position as Program Officer for Broadcasting and ICT at the Zimbabwe Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Koliwe is involved in lobby and advocacy work for diversity, plurality, and democratic governance of both sectors. As an alumna of the African School of Internet Governance (AfriSIG) and a fellow at the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Koliwe has over the past two years also left her footprint in Internet governance discourses in regional and global forums in addition to those in her native Zimbabwe. #mediadev spoke to Koliwe via Skype in the run-up to this years’ Forum Media and Development (FoME) conference in Berlin, only a few days before the military takeover that put an end to President Mugabe’s 37-year rule of Zimbabwe.
#mediadev: When it comes to Internet governance, what are the most pressing issues in Zimbabwe?
What is important in the context of Internet governance in Zimbabwe right now is holding governments to account. In 2015 and this year, civil society has come together in two multi-stakeholder conferences to remind governments that citizens, users, and the private sector all want to be part of the conversation.
Among the critical issues are protecting citizens’ democratic rights and ensuring access to the Internet. When it comes to infrastructure development, the government has been on the drive to set up community information centers with Internet access. But access is not only a question of affordability; it is also about the promotion of healthy competition among Internet service providers. The conversation right now is about ownership and control of internet services, we are concerned about who runs internet services, and particularly mobile networks, as this is the service most Zimbabweans utilize. Zimbabwe has only one independent, privately owned mobile network operator, Econet Zimbabwe.
What strategies do you and your networks pursue in order to tackle these issues?
The key issue we are looking at right now is analyzing the cybersecurity approach that the government has taken. It would seem that Zimbabwe’s approach is more state-centered than it is rights-centered. One of the issues we have constantly argued against is the tendency to draft laws before coming up with a policy framework, instead of doing it the other way round. Zimbabwe’s Cybersecurity draft law prioritizes national security and yet its parameters remain wide and undefined. Therefore, you find a tendency to crack down on online rights such as free expression and privacy in the name of national security.
At the same time, we see that citizens are being arrested as they exercise their rights, in particular the right to free expression. So we have been calling for the decriminalization of free expression online. The most recent arrest in Zimbabwe of a U.S. citizen and journalist, Martha O’Donovan, is based on social media use—that she insulted the government, or the person of the president, in a Twitter post.
You are engaging in multi-stakeholder dialogue and would like to see consultations with ministries. But what are the limits…?
I think the challenge of multi-stakeholderism, particularly in the African context, is to reach a place where there is trust between the stakeholders: trust between governments and citizens, and trust between service providers and their users. How do we get to the point where, for instance, you get governments and civil society sitting together and deciding on issues relating to Internet development in the country?
The current trends in the digital rights violations at the moment in Zimbabwe are increasingly becoming a challenge and a subject of conversation among users. Particularly regarding free expression, privacy and the right to use the Internet anonymously. in this context, you can also consider the Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe during protests last year.
What needs to be done?
When you look at the structuring of a multi-stakeholder process in Internet governance, you first of all have to acknowledge that there is a multiplicity of interests. You have the ordinary user, you have civil society, you have the private sector, and you have the government as well. Within the context of not only Zimbabwe but Africa as a whole, there are issues of governments that are not transparent, open, and accountable. And then we find we have to remind them of regional and continental agreements, that this is not only for Zimbabwe.
Another question is how effective national Internet Governance Forums are. A structure is set, but is that enough? What we as African nationals should be demanding now are the yardsticks. What do we need as tangible evidence and get to a point where we can say that the national Internet Governance Forum works for us? What is needed for multi-stakeholderism? What is needed for more transparency and accountability?
Could you tell us more about the regional aspect you mentioned?
We at MISA Zimbabwe have been working closely with a network of African civil society organizations that support what we call the African Declaration of Internet Rights. While it addresses a broad range of topics, it also states that the rights acknowledged in other universal declarations, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should be recognized in the online space as well.
As MISA Zimbabwe, we have emphasized in almost all the resolutions that have come up the need for regional solidarity around Internet governance. This involves largely monitoring and comparing trends and supporting statements and petitions of solidarity. There is a challenge right now in the campaign for more democratic legislation around cybercrime in the Southern African region itself. At the African Internet Governance Forum in Egypt in December, cybersecurity is definitely going to be one of the issues. MISA Zimbabwe will be represented and we will share issues that affect us as Zimbabweans, including the direction we feel we should take compared to what other countries are doing and able to do.
How could media engage in the discussion around Internet governance?
Sustainability for the mainstream media is a great challenge in this digital era, and this is true even in the Zimbabwean context. Mainstream media sustainability is an Internet governance issue that should be taken seriously. If you are going to have a zero-rated service and select the issues that are of importance to a particular citizenry, what would those be? First and foremost, we would expect that we would have a newspaper that provides verified and authentic content of public interest. So the news media needs to be part of this conversation. And, what partnerships can they form with Internet service providers to make sure that their content is affordable and readily available?
Other media-related issues of importance in this context include digital security of journalists , their rights to privacy considering the manner which newsrooms have changed in terms of communicating with their sources. The question is: Are newsrooms still able to protect their sources in this digital era?
Then there are intellectual property and copyright issues. How is content curated online? How are we dealing with the revenue generated with our content?
Where do you see challenges related to gender when it comes to Internet governance?
Obviously, the most critical issues around gender within Internet governance conversations are issues of access and literacy. A lot of women in rural areas have a mobile phone but don’t know how to use it. Or, they have a mobile phone but it doesn’t actually belong to them. So what are the chances that women would be able to access information they have a specific interest in, instead of that information access being controlled by their husbands, for instance.
Other issues are sex and sexuality, especially when it comes to women from vulnerable groups—like commercial sex workers, for example. In Zimbabwe, we have a cash crisis. Most of the clients paying for sexual services have money on their mobile phones or would want to make a bank transfer. But to what extent is the sex worker secure giving her account details to a client when she knows she is engaging in a trade that has been criminalized? You also have marginalized groups like the LGBTI community. To what extent can they be secure online and be part of the conversation? Women in the LGBTI community in Zimbabwe that I interact with have, for instance, said that although the Internet is a more open place to engage, they face similar discrimination online based on their sexuality. As a result they sit on the fringes of national conversations and find themselves free to speak only on select platforms like Tumblr that are more tolerant.
Then there are the usual issues on the objectification of women—a direct replication of the mainstream media trend where womens’ bodies become objects of entertainment and revenue streams.
Interview: Alexander Matschke and Barbara Gruber