Media experts in Zimbabwe have warned that freedom of expression online is under threat as journalists and other media practitioners in the country face backlash for statements made online.
“Many journalists are harassed for the stories they write," Zenzele Ndebele, a broadcaster and media activist said.
While journalists working for the state face online harassment from the opposition who are always disagreeing with the ruling party, journalists working for the private media face online harassment from supporters of the ruling party and the state itself, through the permanent secretaries and ministers, state agencies, and sometimes the president himself.
Ndebele who also runs the biggest online outlet in Zimbabwe explained that “the state in Zimbabwe is more of cyberbullies that are organized”.
The 2019 cyber security and Data Protection Bill was gazetted into law in December, 2021 by the Zimbabwe government in order to consolidate cyber-related offences and data protection laws for citizens. Clause 164(c) of the law criminalizes the spread of false information online. Among others, this law affects online freedom of expression by limiting journalists’ right to expose the dirty works of the government. In January 2021, investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested three times in eight months. He was accused of sharing false information on Twitter about alleged police violence during the enforcement of lockdown measures.
Online harassment comes in different forms like cyberbullying, cyber mob attacks and others through hateful commenting under their posts and trolling campaigns. Many of the journalists know the trouble they get themselves into, the kind of work they do, and the reactions they get online. However, in newsrooms, it is hard to predict how the state or the public will react to the content posited. Ndebele thinks that “the area of journalism works with all these risks and those are some of the issues they expect and get used to it”.
Regarding how newspapers prepare their journalists adequately to face the challenges for online harassment, Dr. Sibongile Mpofu, a lecturer of journalism and communication at the National University of Science and Technology, notes that journalism training programs aim at teaching journalists on the hazards of the profession and challenges through modules such as media ethics, reporting and writing, gender and the media among others.
“So the journalists we train are well aware of the dangers out there,” she said.
There are also mentorship programs for journalists—especially female journalists—to help them with these issues. For example, the female journalist training project by the Center for Public Interest aims at strengthening the capacity of female journalists to overcome the challenges they face in the field.
“However, in society generally, there are other threats that are beyond journalism training” Dr. Mpofu concluded.