News / Africa

Cat-and-Mouse Game Played in Zimbabwe's Election Cyberwar

A Zimbabwean opposition party Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) supporter holds a party newsletter at an election rally about 90 km (56 miles) east of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, July 23, 2013.
A Zimbabwean opposition party Movement For Democratic Change (MDC) supporter holds a party newsletter at an election rally about 90 km (56 miles) east of the capital Harare, Zimbabwe, July 23, 2013.
Reuters
— Zimbabwe's government has blocked mass SMS text-message bursts ahead of next week's election, hobbling a powerful source of non-official information in the tightly controlled southern African state, activists and a phone company source said on Friday.

With the clock ticking down to the July 31 poll in which President Robert Mugabe is looking to add to his 33 years in power, web portal Kubatana.net said it had noticed this week that its mass text messages were mysteriously getting lost.

Its provider, Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe's largest mobile phone firm with 8 million subscribers out of a population of 13 million, declined to comment.

A senior company source confirmed the firm had bowed to government pressure, however, to block mass SMS services around the election “in the interest of peace, national security and stability."

“We have just been told we cannot be facilitating bulk SMSs during the elections, roughly for the next two or so weeks,” the source said. “Our understanding is that they will take our network down or cancel our license if there is any violation.”

A spokeswoman for the regulator, part of the telecoms ministry, declined to comment.

Although Internet penetration rates have soared since the end of a long economic meltdown in 2008, many Zimbabweans only have simple phone handsets, making the plain old SMS a more effective way to disseminate news and views to a mass audience.

Kubatana, whose messages contained headlines, quotations, proverbs and political questions, said the shutdown was an infringement of the freedom of expression enshrined in a constitution only ratified in May.

“Kubatana.net views the interference in our work as obstructive, repressive and hostile,” it said in a statement.

Online freedom

With Africa's oldest leader in no mood to ride off into the political sunset, there are likely to be more disputes over control of technology and the Internet, the breeding ground of people-power uprisings against oppressive governments in the Middle East and North Africa.

Faced with a daily diet of pro-Mugabe propaganda in newspapers controlled by his ZANU-PF party and on state television and radio, many Zimbabweans have turned to cyberspace for an alternative view.

Top of the list is purported ZANU-PF “Deep Throat” Baba Jukwa, whose Facebook page has attracted nearly 300,000 followers of his salacious tales of scandal and intrigue at the heart of the ruling party.

Internet giant Google has lent its weight, launching a 'Zimbabwe election hub' to bring all stories and issues under one web address.

Fearing a rigged vote or result skewed by threats or violence - as happened in the last election in 2008 - Zimbabweans have also set up sites to monitor the progress of the election and conduct of security forces.

Prominent among these is votewatch263.org, a 'crowd-sourcing' website that lets people report incidents - positive or negative - that are then plotted on an interactive map, a concept first used in Kenya after violent elections in 2007.

“News and information is circulating faster now than at any other time. We don't need to listen to the ZBC bulletins or rely on a copy of the Daily News to know what's going on,” said votewatch263 spokeswoman Koliwe Nyoni Majama.

Even though the atmosphere on the ground has been relatively peaceful compared with 2008, online tensions are high.

Hackers took out the website of the Zimbabwe Ministry of Defense last month and the SMS blockade suggests Mugabe's cyber-police - believed to be trained by China and Russia - will be keeping a close eye on sites such as votewatch263.

The prospects of retaliation are especially high since, as recipients of foreign donor funding, they are open to accusations of being a front for hostile Western governments, a common Mugabe refrain.

“The people who set up the software put some security settings in place,” Majama said. “We've tried our level best to get it on for as long as possible - but everything is possible.”

You May Like

At Khmer Rouge Court, Long-Awaited Verdict Approaches

First phase of trial, which is coming to an end, has focused on forced exodus of Phnom Penh in 1975 - and now many are hopeful justice will be served More

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities More

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

Downing of Malaysian airliner, allegations of cross-border shelling move information war in war-torn country to a new level More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukrainei
X
Al Pessin
July 31, 2014 8:13 PM
The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video Information War Rages Alongside Real One in Ukraine

The downing of the Malaysian airliner two weeks ago, and allegations that Russians are shelling Ukrainian troops across the border, have moved the information war swirling around the Ukrainian conflict to a new level. VOA's Al Pessin reports from Kyiv.
Video

Video When Fighting Eases, Gazans Line Up at Bakeries

When there is a lull in the conflict in Gaza, residents who have been hunkered down in their apartments rush out to stock up on food and other necessities. Probably the most important destination is the local bakery. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Gaza City.
Video

Video US-Funded Program Offers Honduran Children Alternative to Illegal Immigration

President Obama and Central American leaders recently agreed to come up with a plan to address poverty and crime in the region that is fueling the surge of young migrants trying to illegally enter the United States. VOA’s Brian Padden looks at one such program in Honduras - funded in part by the United States - which gives street kids not only food and safety but a chance for a better life without, crossing the border.
Video

Video 'Fab Lab' Igniting Revolution in Kenya

The University of Nairobi’s Science and Technology Park is banking on 3-D prototyping to spark a manufacturing revolution in the country. Lenny Ruvaga has more for from Nairobi's so-called “FabLab” for VOA.
Video

Video Gazans in Shelled School Sought Shelter

Israel's air and ground assault against Hamas-led fighters in Gaza has forced many Palestinians to flee their homes, seeking safety. But safe places are hard to find, as VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from Jabaliya.
Video

Video Rapid Spread of Ebola in West Africa Prompts Global Alert

Across West Africa, health officials are struggling to keep up with what the World Health Organization describes as the worst ebola outbreak on record. The virus has killed hundreds of people this year. U.S. President Barack Obama and other world leaders are watching the developments closely as they weigh what actions, if any, are needed to help contain the disease.
Video

Video Michelle Obama: Young Africans Need to Embrace Women's Rights

U.S. first lady Michelle Obama urged some of Africa's best and brightest to advocate for women's rights in their home countries. As VOA's Pam Dockins explains, Obama spoke to some 500 participants of the Young African Leaders Initiative, a six-week U.S.-based training and development program.
Video

Video Immigrant Influx on Texas Border Heats Up Political Debate

Immigrants from Central America continue to cross the U.S.-Mexico border in south Texas, seeking asylum in the United States, as officials grapple with ways to deal with the problem and provide shelter for thousands of minors among the illegal border crossers. As VOA's Greg Flakus reports from Houston, the issue is complicated by internal U.S. politics and U.S. relations with the troubled nations that immigrants are fleeing.
Video

Video Study: Latino Students Most Segregated in California

Even though legal school segregation ended in the United States 60 years ago, one study finds segregation still occurs in the U.S. based on income and race. The University of California Los Angeles Civil Rights Project finds that students in California are more segregated by race than ever before, especially Latinos. Elizabeth Lee reports for VOA from Los Angeles.

AppleAndroid