So looks like Uganda is following Tanzania in ‘outlawing’ online news publications. Well, of course the authorities would not call it outlawing the news. In Uganda, the equivalent of POTRAZ has directed internet service providers to block ‘unauthorised news websites.’
Uh, wait, what on the earth is an authorised news website let alone an unauthorised one? If it is authorised, is it still news? All governments in general are always tempted to control the flow of information. In more established democracies this temptation is usually checked by strong institutions and systems. In our young nations on this continent it’s not as simple. However, here’s why I would urge Zimbabwe’s government to resist the temptation:
Restricting local blogs is handing even more power to Mark Zuckerberg
The dominance of Facebook (and Google) in the digital advertising and publishing space is a cause for concern around the world. This dominance is not waning anytime soon not inspite of but especially because of the coming regulation regarding collection and use of user data online in Europe and most likely in America soon.
When African governments introduce license fees for online publications it will cause most of them to fold (of course depending on the fees). Where will people get their content after that? Facebook. Effectively the governments would be disempowering their citizens whilst entrenching a US company further in these parts. Even if they introduce a hefty fee for Facebook to be available here, Facebook can afford it.
The government would be burying it’s head in the sand
If the government gets inspired to follow Uganda it will find itself in a worse off place than if they let the local internet ecosystem be. The move will only cut off their own eyes from the conversation going on. If we can’t express ourselves on the broader internet we will express ourselves in WhatsApp groups and unfortunately for Big Brother, WhatsApp has end to end encryption.
If WhatsApp becomes a stronger information source than it already is right now it would be more disastrous for everyone. Random people on WhatsApp have no brand to protect nor a reputation to guard hence fake news will be the order of the day. It already is but this will get worse. Stories more damaging to the government will be cooked up (and believed) than any blog has the creativity to imagine.
As it is fake news on WhatsApp is somewhat kept in check by the online (and ‘offline’) news community. How many times has a story circulating on WhatsApp been dismissed by news brands that people trust? Online news publications are more effective in this function because they are real time. A fake news epidemic can be stopped dead in its tracks before it even takes off. I bet there are a lot of fake stories we never got to hear because a blogger somewhere disproved them before we even knew there was a story to disprove.
The reality of this temptation for the Zim government
So, yes this article has been more speculative than anything but the possibility of POTRAZ pulling a Uganda is real. Why? POTRAZ is getting merged with the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ). Hear me well, this merger is actually a good idea and is kinda becoming best practice around the globe.
However, the new regulatory body will have a lot of power as far as access to information goes. Whatever the baby that results from the mating of POTRAZ and BAZ will be called, that baby will be regulating both content producers/distributors and those who provide access to that content.
BAZ already has some ambiguous stuff that they list as requiring licensing and this body is all but trigger shy if all the shenanigans with Kwese and the recent ban of prophets and sangomas from radio and TV are anything to go by.
Anyway, Zimbabwe is not Tanzania or Uganda. Let’s hope it stays that way…