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Zimbabwe takeover: Navigating the media jungle

Sella Oneko
November 15, 2017

Where to find the right information about the military coup in Zimbabwe? As Zimbabweans sift through the social media channels, it's difficult to find outlets that one can trust.

Zimbabwe Generalmajor Sibusiso Moyo
Image: Reuters/ZBC

Army takes over in Zimbabwe

State-owned media are underreporting the military takeover of Zimbabwe, foreign media have for a long time been barred form entering the country and therefore rely on the few journalists who are still able to work in the country, and social media is rife with rumors and speculations about the coup.

Silence from the state

Prior to Wednesday night, when the army used the Zimbabwe's national TV broadcaster (ZBC) to announce that it was taking over the government and removing individuals which it saw as 'criminal', ZBC and other national media outlets largely ignored the military address on Monday, 13 November.

According to Wilf Mbanga, editor of The Zimbabwean, an online publication that is produced outside the country, many Zimbabweans in rural areas, who rely on the national TV and radio broadcasters, rather than the web, were kept in the dark about what was happening. Military commander General Sibusiso Moyo directly commented on the failure of the ZBC and The Herald newspaper to broadcast the army's statement.

The ZANU-PF Twitter (@ZANUPF_Official) account has largely remained silent on the events and simply chose to warn about messages from a spoof account:

The media void

The void that traditional media outlets have left has partly been filled with rumors from unreliable sources online – to use the it-word of the moment ‘fake news'.  Sifting through that information has proven a difficult task both for people in Zimbabwe and abroad.

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A number of media outlets and persons have cropped up and are doing their best to convey reliable information. Sites like Newsday are run by professional journalists and are largely reliable, while other sites are mainly interested in the number of clicks and hits they can get. Many politicians or stakeholders have chosen to speak to the international press or broadcast through social media.

The media address of the Zimbabwe war veterans association, who called for the creation of a transitional government and spokesperson of the opposition MDC-T  could be watched live from the social media platform @263Chat. The platform and other platforms like @OpenParlyZw have in the past few years presented spaces for Zimbabweans to openly discuss social and political matters. Amongst others, the OpenParly platform shared information on how to survive a social media blackout, should that be necessary:

Activism takes to the web

Social media personalities like the prominent activist and pastor, Evan Mawarire, used their Facebook pages to address their followers. In his video statement he called on Zimbabweans to unite, remain peaceful. "In the coming days Zimbabwe needs you to remain calm but hopeful," he said. "I want to urge you, my fellow Zimbabweans, to stay away from violence and from lawlessness and from rumors." He also called on church leaders to unite and enter talks with both the ruling party, the military, and the opposition.

Crackdown on the media

DW correspondent Columbus Mavhunga and Fadzi Gari from the local VFM radio, were severely beaten up by soldiers in the night of Tuesday, 15 November. They had responded to a press briefing invitation which turned out to be a hoax at the army barracks. Other journalists had also received the message, but were suspicious of the source. The area where the supposed press conference was to be held was a high security area, which is only accessible to military personnel.

Zimbabwe: US journalist jailed

Zimbabwe's government has generally tried to keep a strong grip on the media. Just last week, US journalist Martha O'Donovan was arrested for allegedly insulting President Mugabe in a tweet. She has denied the claims. O'Donovan works for the satirical news outlet Magamba Network, which runs a Youtube and Facebook channel from the capital Harare. Their offices were raided after she was released on bail and their laptop and documents were confiscated earlier this week. O'Donovan's court case has been postponed to November 24.