Where State-Run Media Reigns, Opposition Campaigns Turn to Social Media in Zimbabwe

In the wake of Robert Mugabe’s resignation last month, some opposition leaders see hope for media reforms. For now, the former leader’s ZANU-PF party still dominates TV and radio stations and newspapers, the largest of which remain under government control.

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Where State-Run Media Reigns, Opposition Campaigns Turn to Social Media in Zimbabwe

Fortune Moyo, GPJ Zimbabwe

Mbonisi Gumbo, the secretary for information and publicity for the Mthwakazi Republic Party, communicates with supporters using WhatsApp while on the way to a scheduled rally in Plumtree, a town in Zimbabwe’s Bulilima East district.

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BULAWAYO ZIMBABWE – Mqondisi Moyo is a busy man.

As president of the Mthwakazi Republic Party (MRP) — one of more than 60 registered opposition parties entering Zimbabwe’s planned 2018 general elections — Moyo is working hard to win supporters amidst the largest political upheaval in the country’s history.

Next year, Zimbabweans will elect a new president for only the second time since the country gained independence in 1980, and they will vote in 350 members of parliament.

The transition of power from 93-year-old Robert Mugabe, the country’s longtime leader, to Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president who was sworn in on Nov. 24 as interim president, has been met with optimism. Both men hail from the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, ZANU-PF, the country’s most powerful political party. With the country’s economy in a freefall and unemployment rates skyrocketing, Moyo says the prospect of new leadership excites voters.

But a lot is at stake in the upcoming election, he says.

“Power still remains with the main political party, ZANU-PF, and it is my job to inform voters about what our party stands for,” he says.

Political Revolution in Zimbabwe

After 37 years of controversial rule, Robert Mugabe resigned as president of Zimbabwe on Nov. 21.

Mugabe, 93, was the only leader Zimbabwe has known since the country gained independence in 1980. Once considered a hero of his country’s independence movement, he became an all-powerful ruler who urged his supporters to use violence to implement his policies. Zimbabwe’s economy disintegrated under Mugabe’s rule, and the nation has suffered under strict global sanctions for decades.

Mugabe was placed under house arrest by Zimbabwe’s military after a Nov. 14 takeover. Days later, Mugabe’s ZANU-PF political party fired him as party leader on Nov. 19. That day, thousands of people marched peacefully in Harare to celebrate Mugabe’s dismissal. The party gave him a deadline of midday on Nov. 20 to resign as president, which he did not do.

Zimbabwe’s parliament began the impeachment process on Nov. 21, during which they received and read a letter of resignation from Mugabe. Celebrations erupted in the capital and throughout the country. Recently fired Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa will be sworn in as president in the coming days, and he is expected to serve the remainder of Mugabe’s last term. General elections are tentatively scheduled for late 2018.

In the weeks and months to come, Global Press Journal will continue to provide holistic coverage of the changing nation.

The MRP’s strategy for winning votes includes daily visits to rural communities and suburbs around Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, and communicating with supporters using social media platforms.

Opposition parties in Zimbabwe use social media platforms — namely Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp — to campaign because they have limited access to the country’s newspapers, radio and television stations, many of which are owned by the state and primarily run ZANU-PF campaign advertisements. Opposition party leaders are calling on the government to make reforms that would encourage balanced coverage in print and broadcast media across the country, but free press advocates say a change is unlikely.

The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC), which is owned by the state, operates four radio stations and one television station. The government also owns two daily newspapers, the Herald and the Chronicle, and two weekly newspapers, the Sunday Mail and the Sunday News. News coverage and campaign ads on these platforms favor ZANU-PF, residents say.

While such independent newspapers as NewsDay, the Standard and the Zimbabwe Independent are widely read in urban towns, poor distribution networks make access for residents of rural areas very difficult and expensive, according to a 2016 report by Freedom House, an international watchdog organization that promotes freedom of speech around the world.

So opposition party leaders turn to other means.

According to Internet World Stats, Zimbabwe has about 6.7 million internet users as of June, most of whom gain access with their mobile phones. There also are 850,000 Facebook subscribers and 5.2 million WhatsApp users.

Opposition campaigns use social media platforms to communicate everything from campaign promises to rally locations, says Kuraone Chiwayi, a spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change – Ncube (MDC-N), another registered opposition party.

Chiwayi says relying on social media has been good for his party’s campaign. It streamlines internal communications and allows the party to reach thousands of people with a single message.

“Social media reaches a larger population than ZBC coverage,” he adds, referring to the national broadcasting institution.

Jeffreyson Chitando, a spokesman for the National People’s Party (NPP), another registered opposition party, agrees that social media has proved effective in garnering support — but only for NPP’s urban supporters.

Iphithule Maphosa, a spokesman for the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU), agrees. He says most of his party’s supporters live in rural towns. Without access to national stations, ZAPU’s strategy remains door-to-door campaigning.

But Chiwayi, of the MDC-N, says it shouldn’t be assumed that rural voters can’t be reached using technology. He says that his party sends SMS messages, which do not require smartphones, to its rural supporters.

For Edwin Ndlovu, a spokesman of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), another registered opposition party, debating which social networking platforms to use to reach voters is the wrong conversation. Campaigns should be focused on working to change the ownership structure of media in Zimbabwe, he said, so that people have access to free and balanced information through both traditional and alternative media outlets.

“Information must go to people. People should not [have to] hunt for information,” he says.

Chiwayi says with the country’s newly-appointed leadership — including the president and the minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services — he hopes that public broadcaster ZBC will give opposition parties more airtime as the elections draw closer.

Still, Moyo says parties should not minimize their grassroots efforts.

“ZBC has always been a partisan broadcasting station, covering only ZANU-PF activities,” he says. “Hence I do not believe that anything will change.”


Editor’s Note: Mqondisi Moyo is not related to GPJ reporter Fortune Moyo.

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