Webster Shamu, then Media, Information and Publicity minister — at a function with a Chinese delegation — rose to speak about internet regulation. Most people expected him to be progressive and to encourage its growth as a necessity for economic, political and social empowerment, but he disappointed.
Directing his speech to the deputy minister of the State Counsel Information Office of China, Qian Xiaoqian, Shamu spoke a familiar language to his counterpart whose country is infamous for internet censorship.
He said: “The so-called citizen journalism facet of the new media means everyone has the potential to disseminate information that is sometimes inaccurate or undesirable, information which may indeed be in total disregard of the national interest and lead to uncalled for internal strife in a country.
“Self-censorship, which is a cornerstone in sensible dissemination of information in both the traditional and new media, assumes an abundance of progressive thought in society.”
These remarks were made in 2012 and Zimbabwe had already seen the introduction of 3G technology on August 28 2009.
The mobile penetration rate had risen, according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), to 75,9%. A very significant statistic, given that just four years earlier a SIM card was valued at US$100 and mobile penetration rate was at a lowly 13%.
Zimbabwe has since reached a point where more than five million people have access to the internet, making the cyberspace a new platform for voices that are otherwise stifled in repressed public spaces that are closely monitored courtesy of draconian laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the Official Secrets Act.
Social media, which for long has operated almost without interference, has become a thorn in the flesh of the government.
There are anecdotes that cement the assertion that Shamu — now the Minister of ICT, Postal and Courier services — did not speak in 2012 in isolation, but he premised his words on a deliberate strategy to silence voices on the cyberspace.
Earlier on in 2011, Zimbabwe had its first arrest over a comment a Bulawayo man wrote on a Facebook page allegedly belonging to MDC-T leader, Morgan Tsvangirai.
He was charged with “subverting a constitutional government,” and was accused of “advocating or attempting to take over government by unconstitutional means”.
His Facebook post simply read: “I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr. or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”
This was in apparent reference to the 2011 Egypt uprising where long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak was eventually toppled after weeks of violent street clashes between civilians and the army.
In the paranoia over the influence of social media, the state banned the Blackberry messaging service which is now available on Android and can be downloaded on any device that supports the mobile operation system.
With WhatsApp becoming popular and helping in sharing uncensored information, the state used subliminal intimidation again by making an arrest over a WhatsApp message.
Chantel Rusike last year landed herself in trouble with the police after she sent a photoshopped caricature of a naked President Robert Mugabe on WhatsApp purporting it was shot on February 21 2011, the veteran politician’s birthday.
Most recently it has been fascinating how the public and private media has latched on to the Baba Jukwa saga and the unmasking of the mortals allegedly behind the anonymous Facebook page.
Despite most commentators looking at the story as a diversionary strategy from day-to-day struggles like unemployment, company closures and retrenchments, the economy and factional politics, it is clear that the overplaying of the ability by the state to hack is to intimidate people from using social media as a platform for political discourse.
Already at Alpha Media Holdings (AMH) we have noticed a sudden fear to support our AMHvoices, an initiative to support citizen journalists to tell their community stories.
The platform has exposed corruption and the dearth of service delivery.
After the Baba Jukwa story broke a reader wrote on our NewsDay-Zimbabwe Facebook page: “What if they hack into my account like they did with BJ? I am not sure if it is worth the risk to send in pictures of a failed service delivery system and they discover who I am.”
Informed tech-savvy people know the Zimbabwean government has limited capacity to hack into Facebook or Twitter accounts of private citizens, but clearly the systematic bullying of people on cyber space is beginning to work.
The discourse has wilted down and most of the voices are now from the Diaspora which feels safe far away from the big brother eyes of a “government of hackers.”
Zimbabwe has gained in the growth of ICTs when you consider that in 2000 only 50 000 people had access to the internet and that now almost half the population are connected.
Yet even in this great stride, there is a huge attempt to subliminally intimidate citizens out of the right to peer-to-peer sharing of values and narratives that matter to them.
In 2008 the SMS service played a pivotal role in the Zimbabwe presidential elections; 2013 was a social media election considering the use of social networks to debate and share news, but clearly 2014 is a year the government wants netzens under its wings — some sort of an attempt to bring people back to the state media, back to controlled information.
The question is, have we started to censor ourselves?