Zimbabweans are combating their governments intense media suppression online. Websites are blooming on the Internet from those determined to bring non-government controlled news to their fellow countrymen, both within Zimbabwe and exiled around the world. Three sites currently in operation illustrate the success this new method of reporting Zimbabwes news has had. Hundreds of thousands of visitors from Zimbabwe and around the world log onto the sites daily.
Were trying to keep Zimbabwe updated. I couldnt just leave without writing, says Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of the UK-based newzimbabwe.com. The site, which is updated daily, covers the latest in Zimbabwean news, sports and showbiz. The stories come from both within the country and from around the world, as exiles living internationally constitute the majority of the readers. The site also has a column and opinions section.
Mathuthu was arrested five times for his journalistic work with the Daily News before leaving for the UK. There, he launched newzimbabwe.com in June 2003 with two fellow former employees of the Daily News and two former Zimbabwe Independent journalists. Currently, newzimbabwe.com has a staff of 11.
For newzimbabwe.com, success came so easily they were recently able to start a printed newspaper in addition to their news website. The Fusion Voice was launched in August 2004 and is distributed to readers in the UK for free. The main factors for their accomplishments have been much-needed financial support from charity organizations in the UK, a generous amount of advertising and a large and extremely interested reading base.
We started the newspaper to try to reach out to the Zimbabweans outside the country. There are about 3 million exiles from the country all over the world, about 600,000 in the UK, Mathuthu says. Despite this success, financial gain is neither a reality nor an interest. The site has an unstable financial status despite their success in getting visitors and starting The Fusion Voice.
At the moment, the site isnt receiving any charity money but is receiving adequate support from advertising revenue. It hopes to continue to gain more substantial help through this avenue by trying to accommodate more advertising space on the site.
Since its launch out of London in July 2004, Zimdaily.com has seen the number of its daily visitors grow from 200 to 500,000. Featured sections covered on the site include Headlines, Business, Sports and Health among others.
The online newspaper has 6 journalists on the ground in the different regions of Zimbabwe who report back to the sites creators in the UK. The site also has journalists located in Canada and the United States who report on news that may be of interest to Zimbabwean exiles around the world.
Three of the main creators of Zimdaily.com entirely fund the site. Its our own financial resources were investing into it. Its getting tougher and tougher. For now, were managing, one of their editors says. The creators of the news site admit they will need financial support from any outside sources in the future to keep their operation running. But despite the financial difficulties theyve experienced, they realize the importance of their news site and are determined to sustain it.
The creators of Australia-based zimbabwesituation.com had no journalistic experience before launching their online service. They did, however, share a similar desire to get unbiased, uncontrolled news to the Zimbabwean people.
We started the news service because we were so appalled at what was happening and wanted the world to know. We try to give a broad sweep of what everyone is saying both inside and outside the country, says one of the operators of the site, who prefers to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisal on family members still living in Zimbabwe.
The creators of zimbabwesituation.com mainly search the Internet for stories that they then transfer onto their site.
Financially speaking, the web site generates no revenue. We have no finances, advertising or sponsors. One of the creators pays for the domain name, and the site is hosted free by another site with similar aims.
Harassment and threats part of daily life
Considering the rapid growth and sustained interest of these online services, its likely similar sites will only continue to appear. And despite the pressure the government is trying to put on this new form of media, the sites creators are doing everything possible to keep their online services running.
The creators of zimbabwesituation.com have asked to remain anonymous in order to guard both their own safety and that of their friends and families still living in Zimbabwe. Ultimately, its important for all those associated with the sites to be wary as threats still exist even living thousands of miles outside the country.
The pressure we have felt really are personal attacks on individuals, and living in the constant fear that [the government] might take their frustrations out on our families which remain in Zimbabwe since their laws cant get us, Maththu says.
Most of the personal threats received are through emails. London-based Zimdaily.com has also had a number of attacks on their site from people trying to hack into it and disrupt their activity. Its creators suspect these came from the secret service of the Zimbabwean government.
Theyve planted a few of their guys in the UK and in America. We know they are trying to get as much information about us as possible, one of Zimdaily.coms editors says.
Although the organizers of the sites havent been able to completely escape the governments efforts to stifle press freedom from their new homes around the world, operating outside the country has been a definite blessing. We can write anything. We see how nice it is to be in a democracy, Mathuthu explains. Bringing honest news to the Zimbabwean people is also worth the threats that may still exist.
Banners such as Voice of the Voiceless and Life, Democracy, Change, Freedom on the different news sites illustrate their strong desires to sustain news delivery to the people. Doing this is trying to put as much pressure on the government as possible. We want them to see that no matter what they do, the world will always have a way of finding out whats really going on, one of the editors of Zimdaily.com explains.
Mathuthu carries a similar attitude, but at the same time, realizes the inevitable reality of the situation: The current style of government in Zimbabwe is to make laws as they go along, and it is only a matter of time before they pass laws that will punish the Internet service providers in Zimbabwe. Currently, the three news sites can all be accessed from Zimbabwe.
Reaching the man on the street
Unfortunately, the low level of technology in Zimbabwe remains a roadblock. The sites want to reach Zimbabweans still living within the country, but Internet is rarely available and of poor quality.
My main concern is were not reaching the ordinary man on the street. A lot of these people continue to read government controlled news, Mathuthu says.
Australia-based zimbabwesituation.com tries to combat the problem with an additional service of their site. For those without adequate Internet, the service sends them plain text emails of the contents of each webpage. We have a huge list of people who subscribe to the email plain text version of the website. They cannot afford to read it online. Many of them can no longer afford to buy a local paper, and of course many of the local papers are simply government propaganda machines, one of the creators of the site explains.
Despite this issue, many of these sites still receive a substantial number of visitors from their home country. According to Zimdaily.com, over 30 percent of their visitors come from within Zimbabwe. For the most part, though, international visa.