African viewpoint: Information is power

A man shouts out during a protest against the Protection of Information Bill in the city of Cape Town, South Africa, Saturday 17 September 2011 during a march to parliament

In our series of viewpoints from African journalists, film-maker and columnist Farai Sevenzo considers what it is like to be in the know.

Information, it has been said, is a powerful commodity and those that wield it can call the shots.

Across the continent, censorship and power have for too long gone hand in glove.

Dictatorships, as we see from the paper trail they leave behind after their collapse, regard the muzzling of the population as an important element of their control.

Start Quote

He likened Zanu-PF to a troop of baboons incessantly fighting among themselves, but coming together to face an external threat”

End Quote A US diplomatic cable citing a Zanu-PF MP

And so from Cape to Cairo, we are constantly coming across stories that tell us revolutionaries, at some stage after taking power, want to control what people see, hear and read.

South Africa's parliament was meant to vote this week on the controversial Protection of State Information Bill which would have allowed President Jacob Zuma's government to decide what state information should leak into the public domain.

Citizens of the rainbow republic are uncertain about the wisdom of this law.

They are concerned that there is no protection for whistleblowers and no public interest defence for the media.

Stories about systemic corruption - for instance, in the multi-billion dollar arms deal that has implicated top government officials, including Mr Zuma - would become impossible to cover and those that seek to shine a light into the dark nooks of power would be criminalised.

So loud was the hue and cry over this proposed bill - marches in Cape Town as well as 55,000 signatures collected in opposition to the proposal - the ruling ANC caucus decided not to table the bill pending "further consultation".

Rotten pumpkin

At the same time another nation to the north has been gripped by the ongoing seepage of diplomatic cables emanating from the US embassy in Harare via Wikileaks.

President Mugabe at a rally in Harare (August 2011) One Zanu-PF MP described Robert Mugabe as an "old-timer" in one cable

Zimbabwe never had a problem with her information - a robust press traded blows for the government and the opposition, while the state was always fairly certain about what to feed its public - until Wikileaks.

Now, as we have been reading over the last fortnight, it seems that government ministers, bank officials, opposition politicians, newspaper publishers and high-ranking army officials - and, indeed, heads of other diplomatic missions stationed within Zimbabwe - were falling over themselves to brief US diplomatic staff about the state of the nation and the divisions in President Robert Mugabe's Zanu-PF party.

They also pontificated, most openly, about the how the old guard - into this we must read President Mugabe - were not long for this world.

Those spilling the information seemed to have been trying very hard to position themselves favourably with Washington's representatives in Harare.

Zanu PF, we learned from the eager mouth of one of its MPs, was "like a stick of TNT, susceptible to ignition and disintegration… was holding together because of the threat of the MDC [Movement for Democratic Change party] and foreign pressure.

Miss Angola, Leila Lopes , (left) photographed on 12 September 2011 Angola, not often in the news, made headlines when the country's Leila Lopes became Miss Universe

"He likened Zanu-PF to a troop of baboons incessantly fighting among themselves, but coming together to face an external threat. New leadership was essential and would emerge as some of the old timers, including Mr Mugabe, left the scene," the cable said.

Why such views could not be expressed freely and directly to the population is a mystery, but the effect of every leak (and according to Wikileaks only 5% of the juicy details have been released) is that the aura around information and power has burst like a rotten pumpkin.

But Wikileaks' treasure trove went back further, and political characters at the centre stage of the Zimbabwean story were all dutifully recorded spilling their thoughts to successive US officials so that historians will one day have no doubt where the centre of influence lay for this former British colony - in Washington.

Former Information Minister Jonathan Moyo is quoted in cables going back to 2007 as having discussed targeted sanctions, the machinations of trying to persuade Mr Mugabe not to run in 2008, and the possibility of forming a "Third Way" to lift the ailing nation out of its political and economic malaise.

At one stage he pleads that sanctions should not be extended to all "as he though it unfair… to include the large majority of parliamentarians who are not members of either politburo or central committee… Including them on the sanctions list might push them into Mugabe's camp."

A local newspaper picked up on this earlier this month and Mr Moyo has now run to the courts to sue the Daily News for $100,000 (£64,000) for allegedly misrepresenting his side of the story in the leaked cables.

Throwing biscuits

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In this age of information as choice, we cannot always hear what we want to know, only what the rulers would have us know”

End Quote

But in reality Mr Moyo and others said much more in the belief that their words would not become a Pandora's box that judged those who spoke in confidence: "[former reserve bank governor Gideon] Gono and Moyo are soulmates, and no doubt both are keen to advance their own interests. Gono has always struck us as deeply ambitious, supremely confident, and fundamentally disloyal."

Like all politicians then. And an educated and literate population will not take long to realise that the chiefs have been preaching one thing and talking another over cups of tea with diplomats. A yearning for real unsanitised information has now become raw.

Of course, there will be those regimes south of the Sahara for whom the new age of free information, the internet and inquiring journalism has made little difference.

In The Gambia, journalists are still harassed and President Yahya Jammeh is given to throwing biscuits and money out of his motorcade like some 19th Century chieftain.

The social networking phenomena that affected the North African revolutions is absent from Mr Jammeh's realm and, as he campaigns to prolong his presidency in elections this year, we can expect as little information as possible, although it is still possible to learn that children have been dying on the tarmac in a rush to pick up the crumbs of his largesse.

While we are hard-pressed to find real news about Africa's fastest developing nation that is oil-rich Angola, where student protests against the 32-year rule of President Eduardo dos Santos have been spewing young people into the courts, we are nonetheless over-informed that the new Miss Universe is Angolan.

Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh Gambia's President Yahya Jammeh, who seized power in 1994, is seeking a fourth term in office

In this age of information as choice, we cannot always hear what we want to know, only what the rulers would have us know, unless, of course, they have been bearing their souls to a US diplomat and Wikileaks releases the details.

However, there are others for whom Wikileaks has proved a stone around the neck in the seas of intolerant governments.

Take the case of Argaw Ashine, the Ethiopian journalist who had to flee Addis Ababa after being cited in a cable about press harassment.

Clearly, Wikileaks does not have a fool-proof system to protect the little people.

For, while a serving prime minister could be threatened with treason for speaking to US diplomats, safe in the knowledge that it will not really happen because everyone else is doing the same, for the humble journalist, escape and exile is the only option.

Whatever laws may be passed over information, it is clearer now than it has ever been that the muzzle cannot hold.

If you would like to comment on Farai Sevenzo's column, please do so below.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    In my experience of Africa there is no such thing as freedom of the press except possibly here in SA. People will print whatever they are bribed or coerced to print.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Information is indeed power if one can, and do access it.
    A vibrant and free press in any society will always expose corrupt leaders or any wrong doings. Yes.Many Africans leaders may be corrupt, but foreign banks and countries should stop giving them safe havens for their ill-gotten wealth. There are corrupt officials in the West too. They are simply more covert and sophisticated with their acts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    So, will all of the conspiracy theorists and anti-Americans (who were so happy to make the US lose face) suddenly quiet down in shame for the safety of all the people brave enough to speak up to US diplomats against corrupt, local regimes?


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