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Miffed regime moves to control social media

The Zimbabwean government is drafting a raft of cyber laws to “regulate” the country’s social media, in other words silence critics like “Baba Jukwa”. The government is setting itself a mammoth task, and the jokes are unlikely to stop.

A fortnight ago it was reported that the Zimbabwean government had started drafting a raft of cyber laws to regulate the country’s social media. Postal and Telecommunication Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe legal director, Cecilia Nyamutswa, told a Parliamentary committee on Information and Communication Technology that the bills were ready to be taken to the Attorney General’s office for final drafting. The drafts would pass through Cabinet before they are taken to Parliament for debate.

The news does not come as a surprise at all as currently the State is struggling to trace and prosecute suspected cyber “criminals” who were behind the popular Facebook page “Baba Jukwa” which made one sensational claim after another against President Robert Mugabe and his ZANU PF party in the run-up to last year’s harmonised election.

One needs to go through acerbic posts on the social media platforms and comments posted below some emotive stories in the state-controlled media to appreciate the source of the fears that should have prompted the powers-that-be to try and ensure that at least the most hostile citizens keep their acerbic thoughts to themselves.

How much the upcoming laws could come handy in ensuring that contamination via social media platforms is kept to the minimum while at the same time dealing with cyber criminals—both real and imaginary—is yet to be seen, but one thing that is almost certain is that the government is setting itself a mammoth, if not insurmountable, task.

While most Zimbabweans appear to have resigned their fate to President Mugabe, who is not showing any signs of loosening his stranglehold on power, there are others who have found one useful role for him: as a butt of jokes.

Since meeting in last year’s edition of the reality show Big Brother Africa, Zimbabwe’s self-styled fashionista Pokello Nare and Ghana’s Elikem Kumordzie became Siamese twins—inseparable.

The couple, dubbed “Polikem” by the media in both countries, has been shuttling between Harare and Accra, showing off their love in a big way, with the Ghanaian indicating that wedding bells were not far away.

But this public show of love did not stop the 25-year old Ghanaian tailor-cum-actor from putting a foot in the mouth when he told Zimbabwe’s Herald newspaper that given a choice, he would rather date a fellow Ghanaian.

“Ghanaian women are more beautiful compared to Zimbabwean women because they know how to take good care of themselves fashion wise,” Elikem bragged. “They have manners, are well cultured, I can say they are ahead and better off than Zimbo ladies, except my Pokello who has lived up to my billing,” he added.

While the uncomplimentary comments left some Zimbabweans wondering what sort of potential in-law the young Ghanaian was, others, instead of feeling insulted, took it lightly.

Since President Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, was Ghanaian, jokes started doing the rounds on social media platforms that Elikem was merely confirming what the country’s first citizen noticed more than half a century ago!

Later on when reports started filtering in from Ghana that Elikem had cheated on Pokello before jilting her for Theresa Boateng, a Ghanaian fashion designer based in Germany, Zimbabweans were still not amused.

The was a matching joke too… that Elikem had finally realised that local is better, the same way President Mugabe did nearly three decades ago when he started cheating on his Ghanaian spouse—who was dying from a renal ailment—with his secretary then Grace, who was later to take over from the West African as First Lady. Pokello and Elikem have since not just patched up their differences, but went on to get engaged, prompting the bride-to-be, who boasts of a sex tape among her many accomplishments, to post something on Twitter about prostitutes also getting married!

More than 80 people have been charged with “insulting” President Mugabe in one way or the other, including some for cracking jokes
More than 80 people have been charged with “insulting” President Mugabe in one way or the other, including some for cracking jokes

That President Mugabe dislikes homosexuals with passion, whom he has described as “worse than dogs and pigs”, is no secret. There are some Zimbabweans who think they know the secret reason why… they think it could have something to do with his growing up with Roman Catholic fathers and further compounded with his decade-plus stay in prison!

Following the mysterious disappearance without trace of a China-bound Malaysian jetliner, some of the cyber “dissidents” have been showing mock concern over the safety of President Mugabe’s continued flights to the Far East. President Mugabe, who cannot travel to most Western capitals because he is on a travel ban, is always flying to the East, more frequently for medical attention in Singapore. In Zimbabwe’s main vernacular Shona language, “Singapore” means “without healing”, so there is a joke about the tragedy of shunning a collapsing healthcare system at home to seek expensive medical attention in Singapore but still u-singapore.

Sadly for President Mugabe, the Constitutional Court—the country’s highest court—last year struck down a broadly worded “insult law” that criminalised any act or speech that could be remotely interpreted as “undermining the office of the President” after ruling that this law ran counter to the freedom of expression enshrined in the country’s new constitution introduced in early 2013.

More than 80 people have been charged with “insulting” President Mugabe in one way or the other. After a number of citizens had been charged under this insult law for describing President Mugabe as “old”, social media dissidents sarcastically started replacing “old” in reference to his age with “young”. President Mugabe who turned 90 this year, would, for example, be described as 90 years “young”. As confirmation of him growing younger by the years, another joke goes that in 1980, then 56-year old Mugabe’s hair was turning white on the edges, only for the whiteness to disappear forever, even to this day when he is 90!

After President Mugabe’s wife, Grace, was awarded a doctorate degree by the University of Zimbabwe a fortnight ago, a photoshopped picture of the First Lady reading what appears to be a booklet turned up-side-down started doing the rounds on social media platforms, together with many other grubby comments.

If at all it works, it might not only be President Mugabe and members of his inner circle who might feel they need the protection of the law from having their names and statures wantonly traduced on social media platforms. The leader of the main opposition Movement for Democratic Change party, Morgan Tsvangirai—of whom many agree that while he may be a man of great courage, his intelligence is questionable— might also badly need it too as he, just like his nemesis President Mugabe, is too often a subject of discomforting jokes and barbed comments.

As they say, the surest way to make any mischief popular is to out-law it. The “problem” could actually flourish. It might turn out to be that proverbial eight-headed monster, which, if you try to kill it by chopping off one head, grows two in its place.

This not the first time the Zimbabwean government officials have tried to avoid the sting of the social jokes by ducking under the cover of the law. In 1982, when it became evident that the first President of independent Zimbabwe—then largely a ceremonial office—a jolly fellow colorfully named Canaan Banana, had serious difficulty investing the office with the required aura of reverence as he had immediately become a butt of jokes, a law had to be passed forbidding jokes about the President’s name. It did nothing to halt the cheap jokes.

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