Bruce Mutsvairo / Simon Columbus / Amsterdam University College, The Netherlands / Simon Columbus

While it has general y been accepted that non-professional media actors empowered by novel digital y networked technologies are changing the media landscape in the West, this is less obvi-ous in the case of sub-Saharan Africa. Recent years, however, have seen the emergence of a diverse range of citizen media in Africa, enabled by technologies such as mobile phones, blogs, micro blogs, video-sharing platforms and mapping. Through in-depth and focus-group interviews with selected experts and citizen journalism practitioners, as well as a review of the existing body of research, this study aims to identify emerging patterns and trends in African citizen journalism, paying particular attention to the Zimbabwean case. The research hopes to establish the notion that digital technology-enabled citizen journalism, although still restricted to a subset of African countries, provides a powerful counter-narrative to professional media that are often constrained, or even controlled, by national governments.

Citizen journalism is a relatively novel phenomenon even in developed countries, where the term has come into use since the mid-2000’s (Al an, 2009, p. 18), and even more so in Africa. The boundaries of citizen journalism are not yet clearly drawn, but the term is frequently used to denote non-professional, amateur publication of news items (ibid.). Often, the reporters are “incidental journalists” witnessing and capturing exceptional events (p. 21). As Al an argues, citizen journalism thus plays a particular role in crisis reporting (ibid.). Benkler (2006) argues that citizen journalism is a phenomenon of the emergence of a “networked public sphere” based on digital y networked technologies such as the Internet and mobile phones. In the networked public sphere, “commons-based peer production”, of which citizen journalism is a form, is enabled by two shifts in communication technology, writes Benkler (p. 212): “The first element is the shift from a hub-and-spoke architecture with unidirectional links to the end points in the mass media, to distributed architecture with multidirectional connections among all nodes in the networked information environment. The second is the practical elimination of communications costs as a barrier to speaking across associational boundaries.” That is, digital y networked technologies allow people to become their own broadcasters and to reach unprecedented audiences at low cost.

Of all the continents, citizen journalism in Africa has so far attracted the least attention from researchers. A growing body of relevant research, however, has emerged throughout the last three years. Most of these studies are descriptive case studies, which serves to show that a general y accepted theory of citizen journalism has not yet been developed, and even less so for Africa. However, some authors such as Banda (2010) and Goldstein and Rotich (2008) provide useful normative frameworks for the analysis of citizen journalism specifical y in an African context. Most case studies chronicle single incidents of citizen journalism around exceptional events, such as the 2007-08 postelection crisis in Kenya (Mäkinen & Kuira, 2008; Goldstein & Rotich, 2008; Zuckerman, 2009); whereas there are only a few studies concerned with everyday citizen journalism, and no long-term studies. At the current state of research, three emerging foci can be discerned: studies which are concerned with the relationship between citizen journalism and democracy (Banda, 2010; Goldstein & Rotich, 2008; Mäkinen & Kuira, 2008; Moyo, 2009; Zuckerman, 2009); research into the interaction of conventional and citizen journalism (Banda, 2010; Goldstein & Rotich, 2008; Oteku et al., 2010); and studies on the representation of Africa in the global media sphere (Wal , 2009).

Media regulation and access to ICTs shape the environment for citizen journalism. In Zimbabwe, freedom of expression is highly restricted. Until recently, there were no independent newspapers or broadcasters, and journalists often faced repression; foreign broadcasters were frequently jammed (OpenNet Initiative, 2009).

However, the telecommunications market has been liberalized, allowing several private ISPs to operate in the country. As a consequence, Zimbabwe has one of the highest Internet penetration rates on the continent, at 11.5 per cent of the population (ITU, 2011a). However, in 2009, there were only 100,000 fixed Internet subscriptions, less than one per 100 inhabitants (ITU, 2011b). About a quarter of these subscriptions provided broadband access (ITU, 2011c). At 60 percent in 2010, the rate of mobile phone subscriptions is comparable to other countries in the region (2011d). Mobile broadband is now offered by all operators, and its use is growing rapidly, according to a 2010 Opera study (von Tetzchner, 2010). Irrespective of the model, Internet connections are still extremely slow, with broadband being capped at 256kbps. While offline media are heavily censored, the OpenNet Initiative (2009) has found no evidence of Internet filtering in Zimbabwe.

Citizen journalism often happens when amateur or untrained journalists engage in journalistic practice, a mission that often involves sourcing, interviewing, witnessing, writing and reporting news. The assumption and viewpoint that trained journalists often fail to tell people’s real stories certainly has contributed to the rise of participatory journalism, whose presence has also been sustained by the consequent emergence of new media technologies. Citizen journalism, concludes Bowman and Willis, seeks to provide independent, reliable, accurate, wide-ranging and relevant information. That’s not always the case. Media scholars have questioned the transparency and objectivity of citizen generated contents with activists in turn arguing mainstream media outlets, which over the years have been dominated by reporting scandals and fraud, have failed to meet that target too, creating a furore on what exactly is real journalism and with everyone having the ability to disseminate who then should be trusted as the dependable flag-bearer of competent and reliable news. The ensuing debate has not eluded Africa… [See More]