The first panel session at Expression under Repression features three online journalists, Taurai Maduna from Kubatana.net in Zimbabwe, Isaac Mao of Blogbus.com in China, and Hossein Derakshan (hoder.com) from Iran.
Taurai is the information officer from Kubatana, an organization dedicated to publishing alternative viewpoints in Zimbabwe. The word “kubatana” means “unity” in Shona, and since 2001, the site has published information that can’t appear anywhere else in controlled Zimbabwean media spaces.
The main tool Kubatana uses are email campaigns, trying to mobilize Zimbabweans to question the government on simple, basic questions: in Harare, there’s no city water supply or garbage collection – so why are people being asked to pay for these services? They’re also screening videos, like “A Force More Powerful”, and a recent documentary about the destruction of “slum” housing by Mugabe. (The film was produced by a South African Organization, Solidarity Peace Trust.)
Taurai tells us that Kubatana operates openly, with the knowledge of the Zimbabwean government and has avoided harrasment, largely because the government doesn’t see the Internet as a way to reach the Zimbabwean mainstream, just the elites. Other groups are more threatening to Mugabe, like Zvakwana, a group that’s distributing a CD – “Rocking the Regime into Retirement” – which features banned songs, including “Change” by South African artist Hugh Masekela. In the song, Masakela sings, “What is it about a man that makes him want to stay in power forever?”, an obvious reference to Mugabe.
Other organizations are looking for alternative ways to protest. WOZA – Women of Zimbabwe Arise – are marching in streets, banging pots and pans and demanding “Why are these pots empty?” Zvakwana, who distribute the CD that features Masakela, is distributing condoms in wrappers that are marked “Get up, stand up… the Zimbabwean government accused the group of purchasing the condoms with US government funding, which the group denies.
Strategies to communicate in Zimbabwe via electronic means can be more difficult. Alternative radio stations like SWRadioAfrica.com have been jammed by the government in the period leading up to reading elections. People were recently arrested in an internet cafe for sending an email that criticized the government. And ISPs just refused to sign a document demanding that they release information on net users if the police demanded it.
While net filtering in Zimbabwe is pretty primitive, Rebecca pointed out that Zimbabwe has just taken a large shipment of Chinese computer equipment, which will likely help with filtering and censorship. Taurai thinks this is overkill, as most Zimbabweans are using the Internet primarily for email, not to read information or publish – Internet is such a luxury that it’s very hard for most people to do more than email their friends in the UK, not organize online.