African governments trying to introduce cyber laws in their respective jurisdictions want to protect themselves from criticism more than to address bullies, media practitioners say.

And social media usage in Zimbabwe has quickly been monopolized by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government since his dramatic rise to power last year, observers in that country say.

Speaking during the 2018 Highway Africa Conference at Rhodes University’s Eden Grove Complex in Grahamstown, veteran Zimbabwean journalist Thando Gwinji told delegates that African governments trying to introduce cyber laws want to protect themselves more than to address the growing problem of online bullies who abuse other social media users.

Gwinji revealed that the Zimbabwean experience shows that the proposed Cyber Crimes Bill in that country is more motivated to shield public officials from repeated criticism.

“We have a lot issues to fix in our governments as Africans. And as we know, there is a lot of trying to fix the citizens instead of working with the citizens for the sake of development. What I noticed with the Cyber Crimes Bill that is currently being developed in Zimbabwe is that, it protects the State more than it protects ordinary citizens, and it is the same discussion that is also going on in Zambia,” Gwinji said during a plenary session dubbed: “Social Media: bullying, harassment and silencing of voices. What can be done?”

“Now, if we are not vocal in trying to make sure that we are also consulted on the Bills, policies and laws, then we might also be at a disadvantage because, let’s face it, the traditional, mainstream media is slowly dying, and if we lose our social media rights, we lose access to information, not just information, but a lot of other things as well. So, we also need to protect those rights as well as much as we are protecting ourselves from discrimination and cyber-crimes.”

Earlier, during a “Digital Citizenship” panel discussion, Delta Ndou, a Zimbabwean media practitioner with over 15 years’ experience, argued that President Mnangagwa’s administration has rapidly monopolized the social media space in Zimbabwe since his dramatic rise to power last year after former President Robert Mugabe was ousted in a coup.

“Social media is widely used in urban areas, but in Zimbabwe, WhatsApp is the most common form of social media; that’s where people share news articles etc. A very curious thing happened in November, 2017, which is that it transformed the dominance of voices online,” Ndou said.

“In the 2013 elections, the dominant voices were pro-MDC, and if you had a pro-ZANU-PF voice, you were likely to be drowned out by other voices. But now, enter this new administration, and they have managed to harness social media in the most phenomenal way!”

She explained that President Mnangagwa has now mastered how to utilise social media using the youth to control the political narrative and further his own political interests.

“President Mnangagwa was saying at a rally; ‘some of us are old, we don’t know these social media things, so, you young people in the party, go there into those social media spaces and bludgeon them!’ And then, we found these leading opinion shapers, influencers on social media platforms peddling pro-ZANU-PF sentiments! It was very confounding because these were people who, prior to that, were very anti-ZANU-PF,” revealed Ndou.

The 2018 Highway Africa Conference, which attracted over 100 delegates from across the globe, was held under the theme: “Digital Citizenship: the changing relationship of media and society.”