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Africa’s tin-can version of Twitter has it right

Journalist Ezra Sibanda sits in London with lists of Zimbabwean cellphone numbers. These are his notes for his radio show which he broadcasts to Zimbabwe via short wave (and the internet). From London’s East End he draws a massive rural listenership by dragging a finger down his list of 45 000 numbers and calling Zimbabweans at random. Sibanda speaks with a slow, intelligent accent, but for most of his show he lets his listeners do the talking: anonymously and freely about what’s happening in their country. They have become the country’s reporters.

Last year, when South Africa’s media was decidedly rickety, Sibanda considered the possibility of having to double his broadcast time and offer a similar covert radio service to South Africa. Sibanda watched media freedom disintegrate under Robert Mugabe and though South Africa has some durability in the basement that Zimbabwe has never had it’s hard to ignore that Sibanda’s radio show — a mixture of personal stories and pointed instruction — contains the crucial, often absent, elements that any country needs from its media.

Sibanda’s early broadcasts reassured people that by voting for the opposition they weren’t in danger. There was the rumour of cameras recording which box you marked on your ballot. Subsequently you’d be hunted down if you voted against Mugabe. This shows the mediating level of control when running a dictatorship: you don’t need to install actual cameras — though you feasibly could — when you can make people believe that the cameras exist.

It isn’t like Mugabe hasn’t tried his best to shut SW Radio down. Back in 2000 the Zimbabwean government’s broadcasting monopoly was challenged in the Supreme Court and Gerry Jackson won the right to open the country’s first independent radio station. This was forcibly closed after six days of test broadcasts. In 2002 an Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act was passed. It’s been impossible to open an independent radio station in the country since. The Daily News was shut down that same year. “Reporters Without Borders” made claims of the country’s media being victim to threats, imprisonment, censorship, blackmail, abuse of power and denial of justice. Before SW Radio relocated to London, regional countries like South Africa were possible options but access was denied. “Because in their own way they have given in to Mugabe,” says Sibanda.

From these London-based broadcasts people have gradually learnt a selection of truths. When Sibanda returned recently to Zimbabwe he stayed in rural towns where he saw locals gathered around radio hubs — like students in the fifties eager for pop music, but these people wanted news and debate. In hostels owners took information from SW Radio’s website and stapled sheets into the government-controlled daily newspaper so people could get proper context on events.

With an increase in internet content and slashing of media budgets this idea of a trusted mouthpiece, which SW Radio has become, is fading worldwide. In the UK it flat out doesn’t exist. The MRR vaccine health scare during the last decade proved that a campaign of incorrect media can escalate into a public health concern. When your media coverage is causing sickness in children — through irresponsible reporting — where are the benefits of a free press? In the early 2000s British anti-MMR lobbyists intentionally targeted generalist journalists, instead of health correspondents, hoping that their information on vaccines causing autism would not be scrutinised. Once the story became feverish the editors avoided any evidence that was contrary to their original, incorrect stance and ran with it. “People make health decisions based on what they read in the newspapers, and MMR uptake has plummeted from 92% to 73%,” says Ben Goldacre. “We have already seen a mumps epidemic in 2005, and measles cases are at their highest levels for a decade.”

Really what SW Radio has created is a tin-can version of Twitter with the necessary bonus in that it’s mediated by a professional. In the sparseness of Zimbabwe’s media it’s easy to see how a relied upon, comforting Fairy Godmother like Sibanda is necessary. Unfortunately, this only occurs when you are on the brink of a propaganda implosion. You get a comforting “cops and robbers” simplicity and it’s easy to know which side is right. Zimbabwe occupies a space in the frantic South African’s imagination as a worst-case-scenario. And it is true that if SW Radio was corrupted they could lead their listeners to eat their own children, but their intentions are noble, rather than commercial. Ironically, this works because they don’t have to think commercially — there is no competition or market. There is a scant 12 million people in Zimbabwe, but there are easily that many people who would benefit from an SW Radio type service in South Africa or anywhere else.

SW Radio is in the same part of London as the HQ for the British National Party. On the street there are pockets of white, thuggish kids hanging on like barnacles as waves of black people come out every few seconds from the train station. It is rush hour and folk are coming home from their jobs. The rich, fatty smell of a kebab shop is why this can’t be Africa, not even Johannesburg. There are a few words of French and a couple of Xhosa clicks from the crowd, but that kebab shop is the smell of England. For Sibanda there’s nothing to report here. Broadcasting from another continent means you lose the luxury of thorough, face-to-face investigation. And though richer, more established countries have that kind reporting — does it matter? Not if there isn’t a media outlet that garners an opportunity for basic trust.