Taurai Maduna at Expression Under Repression

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.

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5 Responses to Taurai Maduna at Expression Under Repression

  1. dumi says:

    hey ethan — i follow your blog quite regularly from zimbabwe. i’m interested in the perspective that taurai shares at the Expression Under Repression event. obviously i wasn’t there but from reading your blog it does seem as if he paints a picture of this tough society where people can’t do much on the net. perhaps i’m speaking from a point of privelege, being someone who goes online everyday and can read whatever news i want from around the world and express myself online anyway and anywhere i want, but i think the whole idea of zimbabwe being a repressive society is overblown. i live here and i don’t share these over the top descriptions of zimbabwe. things are hard here-economically and otherwise. and yes, the political space isn’t as open as we’d like or as others ‘out there’ would hope for, but there’s more to the story than just a paranoid government wanting gto shut people up! one has to understand the complexity of the zimbabwean story before they can figure out the context of ‘freedom of expression’ in the country.

    if you read the independent press here [and yes, there is a lot of indepent newspapers in the country, contrary to the popular line that they have all been shut down by the government] you will see that people write and say almost what they like. there are strict publishing rules, but that’s the same world wide. and i think there’s a different media culture in general. but whatever “repression” is there, in my understanding, isn’t [only] out of simplistic, power gathering intentions, but has a base in nationalistic, revolutionary ideologies that sometimes are at odds with the ‘standards of democracy’ that the western ‘judges’ and ‘leaders’ of this world like to think are the only standards. that notion can be contested.

    so if we are to have more media freedoms in zimbabwe, and other so-called repressed countries, i don’t think that head on collisions with the powers that be are what will open up the spaces for debate and dialogue. after all, the more you fight against a noose, the tighter it gets. so to ‘free’ yourself, you have to try strategies that work favoroubly against the ‘repressive noose’ …

    from what i understand about Kubatana, it does criticize the government, but not from a ridiculous, irrational hatred of the government. i think that’s part of why they remaind largely unbothered. i think it’s too simple to say it’s because they don’t affect the mainstream. come to bulawayo for example, and see how many people use the internet and email. more than you think! at internet cafes, work places, universities… people are connected — no stats to share — but from observations. kubatana is critical of government but i think also constructive. people like SW Radio have a more extreme anti-government line. so whilst i don’t agree with government banning them, when you look at the bigger picture you can understand it.

    it doesn’t serve us as zimbabweans for people to also paint our country as some hell on earth. it has its problems, and its spaces of opportunity.

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  3. dumi says:

    i disagree with that view that the zimbabwean government views the internet as a threat to the government. taurai is obviously not telling people of the way his organization operates. it’s a network of NGOs. their activities don’t threaten the government as such. they share information on whatever they see as important … but it would be claiming heroics that don’t exist if kubatana was to suggest that they are some kind of revolutionaries who threaten the government. governments worldwide, not just in zimbabwe, react to threats – perceived or real. kubatana isn’t one. the internet, potentially could be a threat. but the government of zimbabwe doesn’t see it that way. that’s why they are promoting their e-strategy like mad. not to say their e-strategy is effective, but they are nonetheless promoting ICTs and electronic media to the mainstream. the internet isn’t even restricted as such in zimbabwe. even extremely anti-zimbabwean government websites are accessible from wITHIN zimbabwe. go to an internet cafe in the city and tell me if you think those people belong to the “elite.” the ironic thing is that you will find that a lot of the elites in zimbabwe don’t use the internet. they don’t get it. be they elites in business or government or whatever. i disagree with the notion that this society is as repressive as the globe trotters campaigning for media freedoms on behalf of zimbabwe would like us to believe.

  4. Bev Clark says:

    I think that Dumi raises some very good points.

    First, at Kubatana we’ve worked hard to provide a platform for broad civic, political and public comment – we don’t censor or edit submissions. And we haven’t had cause to “ban” any submission on the grounds of hate speech, or anything like that. So I’m pleased that Dumi sees us as being objective.

    We actually publish on behalf of civil society and we don’t editorialise. We’ve noted that the most energetic publishers of information within civil society in Zimbabwe are the human rights/media and legal NGOs.

    We’ve run a lot of email/internet training workshops and over the years as the cost of living has increased many of the young Zimbabweans who come to us for training have cited that lack of funds are stopping them from communicating via the Internet. Perhaps the debate of the “elite” using the Internet can be seen in the context of access to resources. Whilst we’ve seen an increase in the number of internet cafes the majority of urban Zimbabweans either don’t have the funds to use the internet cafes, or the skills. I agree with Dumi – when I do the rounds of internet cafes in Harare they are buzzing! However this is not an indication that this technology is used by many people relatively,in Zimbabwe.

    I believe that the government of Zimbabwe is far more threatened by mass print media than the internet hence the awful absence of a variety of homegrown “zines” and papers on the street. I would certainly like to see this change. I’ve always felt that if we enhance Kubatana.net by compiling a monthly newsletter containing articles/reports/pictures etc from our web site and distributing it in High Density Areas then we would be far less tolerated by the ruling party. Maybe we need the courage to take this step!

    I think that we must also broaden the debate on expression under repression – it’s not just about critics of the government being able to speak their mind. It’s about the rights of gays and lesbians, or the rights of those who wish to wear dreadlocks, or mini skirts, its about the rights of women who should be able to move freely at night in Zimbabwe but can’t for fear of assault, or arrest for being branded a commercial sex worker, its about the rights of people to not belong to the MDC or the ruling party.

    The list is endless.

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