By Khumbulani Maphosa
The enjoyment of human rights and the realisation of social accountability as a mechanism to protect and promote human rights and freedoms are both reliant on access to factual, timely, relevant and digestible information by citizens and civic society.
Without access to factual, timely, relevant and deconstructed usable information — communities are vulnerable and susceptible to bureaucratic manipulation, corruption and exploitative tendencies.
Never has media been so critical in providing information as a public good than during the COVID-19 pandemic period, with its attendant lockdown measures that disrupted conventional access to information and communication channels. In restrictive and authoritarian States like Zimbabwe where there is still monopoly and censorship of media, citizens relied heavily on alternative media to access information and share alternative views that do to conform to the government rhetoric.
Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights as a non-profit organisation that exists to enhance the non-violent protection and promotion of human rights through social movement building and accountability, has been closely collaborating with the media to facilitate the realisation of the human rights goals.
Over the years, the organisation has since realised that media is a strategic partner in human rights promotion and social accountability in the following ways:
Human rights education
Media provides human rights education to millions of Zimbabweans and through carefully crafted media stories, citizens are not only learning about their rights but how to organise and defend themselves from human rights abuses. Coverage of efforts being made on the other end of the country educates the other far end and breeds solidarity of the oppressed. The indepth media coverage of the Dinde and Chilonga land grabs by commercial interests have been instrumental in awakening other communities in Zimbabwe on the impending State-sponsored land grabs, thus enabling them to prepare themselves in advance. Hyde Park residents in Bulawayo peri-urban are uptight about the influx of Chinese quarry miners in their community and have asked MIHR to assist them to defend their rights from Chinese mining interest. Their awakening emanates from the media coverage of Hwange’s Dinde Chinese mining concerns as well as the environmental concerns from the Hope Fountain Chinese miners.
When MIHR successfully mobilised Bulawayo residents to stage online protests against the Zimbabwe National Water Authority (Zinwa) and to submit their demands for bulk water provision through emails, it was the media which amplified the citizen agency by ensuring that Zinwa eventually responds to residents’ concerns. Though Zinwa did not respond to the organisation’s demands, the media picked the issues, followed them up with the authority and eventually all the issues were responded to via the newspapers.
The media, therefore, was an instrumental partner in amplifying the voices of citizens and ensuring that there is accountability.
Social media has played a pivotal role in reaching out to millions and in exposing what would have ordinarily remained as bureaucratic secrets.
Unlocking shrinking operation space
Autocratic regimes have been using COVID-19 and State security concerns to crush dissenting voices, shrink civic operating space and curtail both human rights monitoring and education. A shrinking civic space means that human rights defenders are unable to reach the vulnerable and marginalised communities as well as victims of State excesses. The media has played a pivotal role in providing citizens access to information, as well as referral services and contacts during repressive times. This assists to document human rights violations and monitoring trends.
Shifting accountability space
COVID-19-induced lockdown measures closed the normal accountability spaces that social movements and civil society were accustomed to. With non-violent street protests being impossible to implement due to restrictive COVID-19 measures, civil society and social movements shifted to media spaces to demand accountability and amplify citizen voice and agency. Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights used media spaces to stage online non-violent protests on water rights in Zimbabwe. At times the organisation encouraged citizens to conduct deconcentrated nonviolent symbolic actions and post them in the media. Some organisations and social movements encouraged citizens to use radio call-in programmes to speak out against human rights abuses.
Simplifying information for the benefit of ordinary citizens is one key function of the media. Most government information is technical and uses legal jargon which is too abstract for ordinary citizens.
At times the policy pronouncements are not even clear for the policy implementers and the citizens.
In the year 2020 alone, Zimbabwe had about 314 statutory instrument pronouncements which was close to a statutory instrument everyday of the year.
As of beginning of May 2021 Zimbabwe is already promulgated 103 statutory instruments in 120 days of the year.
The media is thus important in keeping tabs with the pronouncements, simplifying them and making them sensible and useable by the ordinary citizen.
How can media best continue to provide information as a public good to the nation
For the media to continue playing its role as the provider of the critical public good — information a number of issues need to be put in place by various stakeholders:
(a) Security of journalists and human rights defenders: States need to allow journalists to play their role of informing, educating and empowering without censorship or restrictions. This in turn means that human rights defenders need to be allowed to express themselves freely without fear of reprisals after engaging with media workers. Journalists in their own right are human rights defenders.
(b) Increased funding and opportunities for media work: donors and civic society need to explore ways of improving funding for journalism and media work especially involving investigative journalism. It is the investigative products of journalists that civic society ride on to develop human rights and accountability campaigns and programmes.
(c) More mouths — more voices: there is need for more free and open media outlets to amplify the voices of the citizens. Media is the mouthpiece and the citizens are the voice. Without the voice the mouth cannot produce a sound and without the mouth the voice remains enclosed and barricaded in the voice box. It is the same with the citizen’s voice. Without a more independent, free Press — the voices of the citizens remain muzzled and closed. However, a full implementation of the Windhoek Declaration and other media laws helps to ensure voices of the people are heard.
(d) Responsible citizen journalism: the public needs to be educated on responsible citizen journalism skills. The people are the newsmakers and newsbreakers — they stay where the news are happening.
It is, therefore, critical to equip them with requisite skills to enable them to document and communicate factual and detailed information to the media personnel.
This is very critical especially in cases of emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change-induced floods and cyclones where travelling may be extremely curtailed.
(e) The cost of accessing information: access to the media is becoming very expensive especially for the majority of Zimbabweans. Internet and WhatsApp bundles are beyond the reach of many. Procuring a simple smartphone is still a privileged luxury. There is need to lobby the government and internet service providers to reduce their costs so as to allow citizens increased access to the public good. If information is indeed a public good, it should be easily accessible to all the publics and not just a few privileged elites.
The economic, technological and skills costs of accessing information are even more high for the rural poor who do not have access to stable networks and sometimes travel 2km to access network. At times they have to climb trees and mountains, thus adding security costs.
(f) Dealing with cyber bullying: improving cyber security should be for protecting citizens (especially women and girls) from cyber bullying in order to enjoy the public good — information. It should not be for repressive purposes. The high levels of toxic cyber bullying, especially on social media are discouraging many from exploring the full use of the media.
- Khumbulani Maphosa is the coordinator of Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights. He writes in his personal capacity.