IMPROVING COMMUNICATION WITH CRISIS-AFFECTED COMMUNITIES
Internet penetration has grown significantly since 2009.
The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) estimated that by the end of 2010, 11.5% of the population was online.
Internet access in urban areas is growing rapidly, with internet cafés, 3G data coverage and wireless hotspots.
In mid-2011 Econet, the largest of Zimbabwe’s three mobile phone companies, announced that 1.8 million of its subscribers were using a mobile broadband connection to access the internet.
Internet facilities in rural areas are usually only accessible at business centres and schools.
President Robert Mugabe’s campaign to establish computers in rural secondary schools has not been frustrated because most schools lack power and telephone connections.
In addition, some computers that were supplied to schools were not securely stored and were stolen.
There are several local internet service providers.
One in particular, Zimbabwe OnLine (ZOL) has established a network of wi-fi hotspots in towns that allow non-subscribers to log on for 15 mins per day for free of charge.
A recently installed 261km fibre optic cable from Harare to Mozambique, via Mutare, will form the backbone of a broadband infrastructure that will connect Zimbabwe to the rest of the world through the EASSy undersea cable that runs along the East African coast.
Information Communication Technology (ICT) Minister Nelson Chamisa forecast in 2011 that by 2014 Zimbabwe will be ‘internationally networked’ with 1,340 km of cables.
Legally, all electronic communications can be monitored and intercepted by state security agencies.
In August 2011, these agencies seemed to lack the capacity to do more than occasionally harass high profile opposition activists.
However, Chinese military and intelligence advisors were building a National Intelligence Centre outside Harare.
This is widely expected to improve the government’s capability to intercept and monitor all forms of electronic communication once it is completed.
The threat of surveillance is already enough to make most Zimbabweans circumspect about what they say on the phone or write in an email.
Tight government restrictions on print and broadcast media over the past decade, and the economic and political exile of many journalists, have led to the growth of a significant Zimbabwe-focussed online news industry.
There are several news consolidator sites, of which www.zimbabwesituation.com is probably the best.
Zimsituation (as it is known) consolidates reports on Zimbabwe from a wide variety of sources including print and online Zimbabwean media, international print and broadcast media, blogs, media monitoring sites and statements on Zimbabwe by governments and embassies.
All Zimbabwean newspapers have an online edition, and many more publish only online.
The fifty online newspapers listed at www.onlinenewspapers.com/zimbabwe.htm shows the breadth of reporting in this area - although several sites appear to be dormant.
The overwhelming majority publish in English. Some are targeted primarily at the diaspora community.
Typically, some of the wilder rumours about Zimbabwe (Mugabe’s health being a favourite topic) are first published online.
They are then often picked up by mainstream newspapers.
Sometimes these online rumours turn out to have a kernel of truth, but often they are demonstrably false.
Most of the online news sites about Zimbabwe have a clear political agenda.
The Mthwakazian for instance promotes Ndebele independence from the rest of Zimbabwe.
The most reliable sites are those linked to independent newspapers such as The Zimbabwe Independent, The Standard, Daily News and Newsday.
News consolidator sites like Zimsituation cherry-pick the best articles, and rarely miss an important development.
A paucity of data makes it impossible to measure the breadth of access to social networking sites in Zimbabwe.
However, anecdotal evidence would suggest that there are tens of thousands of users.
Facebook is very popular among the urban youth. The Zimbabwe All Media and Products (ZAMPS) survey in December 2010 found that 16% of all internet users in Zimbabwe accessed Facebook.
It is used extensively to communicate between Zimbabweans livng at home and abroad.
In the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, ZANU (PF) loyalists in the security agencies arrested and prosecuted several people for using Facebook to criticise the government in general and President Robert Mugabe in particular.
As of August 2011, Twitter was not widely used in Zimbabwe.
Internet access is monitored by the government’s surveillance and intelligence agencies. However, there have been no reported cases of interception or interdiction of internet use.