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Watching Zimbabwe with dismay along with much of the rest of the world – nothing to be surprised about here with regard to Mugabe’s violent tactics, and there are links all over the web, so I’ll forgo most of that, except to say that Mugabe’s been prepared for this for years – see Samantha Power’s 2003 article, “How to Kill a Country” for a succinct summary.

Rather it makes me wonder about the ease with which many tout civil society and media initiatives, and whether they/we chronically underestimate the enduring power of state control. Morgan Tsvangirai makes this calculation when he debates whether the MDC should even engage in electoral politics, and this is clearly a major reason why he pulled out, though it’s also a tactical move to put pressure on the regional African community.

A friend mentioned yesterday that he’d recently been in Djibouti training Somali journalists in how to cover violent conflict. Shortly after the training, the war once again escalated, and two of the trainees were killed while trying to cover the fighting. We discussed whether it was unethical to propose such training opportunities in the first place. Answer: helping pass along knowledge and skills, but not resources, security, ongoing mentoring, or any focus on the structural conditions under which journalists, or activists/monitors/human rights reporters conduct their work is risky, and those engaged in training or promoting such projects need to be very aware of the risks their fellow journalists or activists will be taking.

Sokwanele’s map mashup of electoral violence is full. 1450 incidents.

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Following Zimbabwe’s elections for the past few days – especially the running tab and mapping of violations by Sokwanele. An impressive and well-organized effort to tell the story both in the run-up to elections, and following the tabulations and possible fraud after the vote. Sokwanele’s gone to some trouble to demonstrate transparency of their information sources, and linking their mapping back to the database, explaining the limitations of their data – which is based on a parsing of news sources, and linking to South African Development Community (SADC) standards for elections. They also provide links back to original news sources.

While the technology is impressive, the challenge with any citizen monitoring project is to ensure the accuracy of the original data source – the news article or monitor report. Training for observers (if it’s a citizen group), or reporters on what to look for is key to establishing a strong and defensible evidentiary chain. There’s a role for elections monitoring and media development organizations here – not only in assisting with technology, but providing standards and monitoring and reporting skills that emphasize accuracy and information transparency.

Sokwanele’s approach is temperate – although some of the posts on their related blog contain strongly anti-Mugabe language which point to partisan preference, and of course makes us wonder whether there might be bias in their own sourcing. And some of the language here points to possible protests and the threat of violence if the MDC sense that they’ll win doesn’t materialize. Language such as: “The big question is whether or not the nasty, desperate little zpf vermin are trying to cook the books” is typical of incitement language we’ve seen recently in Kenya, for instance. Incitement language is tricky, and we’ll be discussing in more detail elsewhere. What’s more of a challenge is the mix of supposedly highly transparent and accurately sourced data with derogatory and clearly partisan commentary on one website.

In addition to Sokwanele’s effort, there are other monitoring efforts, such as the Zimbabwe Elections Support Network (ZESN), and possibly, grassroots efforts to document results. One observer, in an email, dated March 31, notes: “The most fascinating aspect is that Zimbabweans are using cell phones to ensure honesty in the election. There was a recent reform to election results stating that they had to be posted on the wall of the polling statino immediately after counting. As soon as they are posted, people are taking photos with their cell phones and sending text messages of the results so they have prrof of what was posted in case they are tampered with later. It is pretty awesome to see that kind of grassroots watchdogging going on. If cell phones were not so successful in Africa then they would not be able to try this.” It would be interesting to know if these efforts are all organized, or are also spontaneous. I suspect the former.

I asked Dorina Bekoe, one of USIP’s Africa specialists, for her take on what’s going on with the results. She says, in paraphrase:

The MDC has already come out and said it’s won by 60%. This is thus far the only real news, hence raising expectations that the MDC won. The MDC is getting its information primarily from its own election monitors. ZESN, which deployed about 8000 people, say they have their own results but aren’t yet revealing them. Perhaps they want to avoid violence. The MDC approach of announcing results ahead of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), as information comes in piecemeal, of employing its own observers, and providing its own results, is consistent with many elections in Africa, and points to a fear that ZEC will not be independent or transparent in its analysis of electoral results.

It’s not unusual in Africa for election commissions to state that there should be no piecemeal release of results, because it causes confusion and tension. Requests of this sort have rarely been respected; more commonly observer groups and political parties push out results despite the requests of electoral commissions. This is partly because people don’t trust electoral commissions, and partly because some NGOs with credibility play a watchdog function, to push governments to behave honestly.

As for whether there might be violence – if there are demonstrations, it’s likely that the police will come out and repress them. The police deployed police Sunday evening (March 30), and have said that they won’t tolerate Kenya-type demonstrations. It’s difficult to make prediction this time, because in Zimbabwe, violence hasn’t featured in past post-election disagreements; rather it’s been primarily part of pre-election efforts to rig elections. Dorina considers Operation Murambatsvina (translation – “operation clear out the filth”) in May 2005 emblematic of this tactic. The operation was a forced displacement of 700,000 out of urban areas in a kind of brutal gerrymandering, to ensure pro-MDC people could not vote in urban areas. The government claimed the effort was to destroy illegal structures and buildings in certain neighborhoods.

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