Zimbabwe Decides in an election dominated by citizen engagement and state secrecy

Today Zimbabweans head to the polls in an election marked by the growing influence of social media among voters. Rashweat Mukundu explains the crucial role of the country’s media sector.

Zimbabweans formed numerous groups on social media and messaging platforms to support their preferred political parties and candidates in the 23 August election. In some instances and a first for some communities, citizens formed joint ruling party and opposition party information sharing groups mostly on WhatsApp, debating politics and promoting their views. The groups whether echo chambers parroting one view or a mixed multitude, still had all the characteristics of the underbelly of social media, which is hate messaging threats, misinformation and disinformation.

Of interest however is a growing interest by citizens to speak out under the cover of technology and the use of digital platforms to monitor electoral malpractices including violence. The killing of an opposition supporter in Harare was captured on video giving the police ample evidence to arrest 19 culprits. On the basis of a more social media active citizenry, 2023 is the most social media-based election in Zimbabwe with the ruling party, ZANU PF on the backfoot and complaining on what it calls the likelihood of election manipulation caused by digital platforms. A 20 August story in the state owned The Sunday Mail, expressed ruling party fears on what it calls threats posed by social media, alleging that the main opposition Citizen Coalition for Change (CCC) has created multiple social media accounts that are using bots to push their agenda. The story concludes by saying that, the extensive use of the social media space by the opposition is unethical, adding the opposition is manufacturing support.

That a dominant and authoritarian political regime as Zimbabwe’s ruling ZANU PF now sees such platforms as a threat speaks to a degree on lose of communication and information control, which is a new phenomenon in politics as ZANU PF has a near monopoly on traditional forms of media. The story, which is based on research by government agents, however, informs a sinister agenda which is to throttle or switch off the internet come election day or post-election as results are being announced. The narrative being constructed is that social media poses a threat and a justification to shut down the net. This as the ruling party dominates all traditional media platforms.

While the Zimbabwe election process is suffering from misinformation and disinformation from all sides, the biggest culprits are not ordinary people but the government and ruling party officials who have gone to the extent of deploying drones to monitor opposition party campaigns and use such images to disparage the opposition. It is reported that the ruling party, working with government communications units have employed an online army to troll, and attack political opponents and civil society.

There are fears of growing surveillance of both civil society, human rights defenders, and opposition with some receiving threatening messages and some denied accreditation to observe elections. The right to online privacy has been breached numerous times with ZANU PF candidate President Emmerson Mnagangwa sending unsolicited SMSes canvassing for support. The telecoms regulator has refused to respond on how Mnagangwa got citizen mobile numbers. Sinisterly a high number of local and foreign journalists have been denied accreditation to report on the elections on the pretext of “security considerations”. Some observers have been deported on arrival and others including the EU observer team have suffered misinformation attacks. While the government expresses concern on digital platforms, its own senior officials and party supporters are the main culprits, as they manipulate information for political ends. Senior government officials have posted tweets threatening journalists over their coverage of elections, have posted messages disparaging female political candidates calling them prostitutes among such online violence. Zimbabwe’s small but resilient digital and community media has pushed back creating and sharing stories on the election and in some instances experimenting with Artificial Intelligence to cut on costs.

On another positive note media advocates have successfully engaged the police and other security services to the extent that there is no record of police abuse of media, a commendable shift in attitudes borne out of police and media engagements which IMS is supporting. While the safety of journalists is a marked improvement from past elections, the management of the electoral process has been chaotic with the Zimbabwe electoral Commission (ZEC) fumbling all over. Opposition parties say they have not received full version of both the voters roll and full list of polling stations. ZEC has not fully engaged with the media to inform on its plans. There is evidence that ZEC is captured by quasi state security structures with shadowy Intelligence grouping registered as an NGO, Forever Associates Zimbabwe (FAZ) being pointed as the main player in capturing ZEC and causing electoral planning confusion including deploying thousands of its people to intimidate and organise mostly rural communities to vote for ZANU PF. FAZ has penetrated  rural governance structures with traditional leaders and councilors marshalled to follow ZANU PF instructions and in turn the same chiefs and councilors intimidate communities. Rural communities are being told that they will vote using formations designed by FAZ and as a result FAZ and ZANU PF says they will know how each person voted as they can trace the ballot paper and link it to the voter. The level of disinformation is meant to cow voters and the media has been slow to capture this story, focusing on the voices of the political elites. Compared to 2018, mainstream media information sharing role, more so explaining the election processes, is weak and citizens are having to rely on alternative sources of information. Failure by the media to report effectively is linked to the media architecture in which all licensed private TV and radio stations have links of sorts to the ruling ZANU PF and government and newly licensed community radio stations lack capacity and are barred from reporting on politics including elections.   

The question then is what is next for Zimbabwe. It is not too hard to see that Zimbabwe socio-economic and political crisis will persist post the August 23. If ZANU PF wins, it faces an internal and vicious fight for succession which is more intense than what happened during Mugabe’s ouster in 2017. ZANU PF has not bothered to release a manifesto and will not be held accountable on anything as it promised nothing. If the opposition wins it faces high expectation in a country on its knees. And still face stiff resistance to assume power from the ruling party. The regional and international community has to see Zimbabwe for what it is, a fragile state. There is a need for sustained dialogue and reaching out. Ostracising Zimbabwe further will not result in positive change as the ruling elite appears too recalcitrant to listen to any voice of reason. The political question will not be settled on August 23 but rather a new chapter will open. How this chapter pans out, only time will tell.