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Blogging Can Expose Atrocities In Zimbabwe

The desperate situation in Zimbabwe is deteriorating yet further ahead of next week's presidential run-off election between Robert Mugabe and the opposition MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who was arrested and released over the weekend for the fifth time of the "campaign." Tsvangirai's deputy, Tendai Biti, is currently being held in an undisclosed location, with treason charges supposedly being prepared against him.

Meanwhile, the Mugabe re-election drive is in full swing: under the oversight of the army and police, killings, beatings and intimidation are being employed to cow the population into voting for ZANU-PF, with scarce food rations being used as political weapons to secure the support of a starving electorate. Voter registration in MDC areas is being severely curtailed, and officials have taken to simply handing out billions of dollars of Zimbabwe's all-but-worthless currency in return for votes. Mugabe bellows darkly of "going to war" if the country is "taken over by lackeys." Given the vast scale on which these elections are being perverted, he may not need to.

Reporting restrictions make it difficult to know exactly what is happening on the ground, with most Western media banned from the country or operating under intolerable circumstances. But information about the harassment and violence being suffered by opposition activists is filtering out by other methods, some of them remarkably innovative. Chief among these has been the advent of blogging, which we have seen in previous situations such as the Israeli conflict with Hezbollah two years ago and the short-lived Burmese uprising of last autumn.

Where mainstream media are sometimes unable to operate freely, whether due to restrictions imposed by repressive regimes or the exigencies of wartime conditions, lone bloggers have often come to the fore in passing on vital information denied to us through traditional means. In Lebanon in 2006, Beirut residents sat on their balconies describing Israeli aircraft coming overhead; students in Haifa liveblogged from bomb shelters until the all clear was sounded. Some of these firsthand accounts provided valuable context to the reports on the evening news bulletins; others challenged the conventional wisdom we were being fed by our media, whatever you thought that was.

A similar pattern emerged in Burma last year, with the junta's clampdown on reporting from inside the country making traditional reporting all but impossible. Small independent newspapers, resistance groups and bloggers filled the gap, with photos of demonstrations being posted to the web and picked up by news agencies hungry for fresh pictures — any pictures — to accompany their stories in the era of 24-hour rolling TV news. But the shortcomings of these outlets quickly became clear; with limited internet penetration into the impoverished country, it was easy enough for the government to block access to blogging platforms for residents of Rangoon and other cities, and the piecemeal supply of information eventually dried up.

The same sort of problem applies in Zimbabwe, whose citizens have long had more pressing problems than a dearth of affordable broadband connections. But information is coming through, thanks in part to the advent of trends such as microblogging, made possible through platforms like Twitter, which (for the benefit of readers as technologically backward as I am) allows users to post information from any internet connection or, crucially, a mobile phone, and makes it easy for others to access the resulting updates. Organisations such as Sokwanele, a civic action group operating out of Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries, are collating information from local activists and observers and disseminating it via RSS feeds and Twitter, and posting photos of demonstrations and police brutality to specially set up Flickr accounts, in ways which the authorities are simply powerless to stop. They even have an interactive Google map charting instances of voter fraud and intimidation by the authorities, and you can follow Morgan Tsvangirai's campaign via Google Earth.

This is not the first time that services like Twitter have been used to outwit security services. A Berkeley student covering an anti-government protest in Egypt used his cellphone to post the one-word update "Arrested" when the police picked him up, and was released within the day. But Zimbabwean activists can count on no such deus ex machina; no embassy or consulate is waiting to spring into action to release those incarcerated in Mugabe's jails. And this is where the limitations of technological advances are most evident. As in Burma, telling the outside world what is happening to you is one thing, and getting them to help you is quite another. Whether through impotence, overstretch or apathy, there is little appetite for Western intervention in the wake of Iraq (as discussed by Daniel last week), and Thabo Mbeki's South Africa, the one regional agent who might realistically exert some diplomatic leverage, has been utterly spineless in the face of Mugabe's brutal campaign against his own people.

And so we watch and wait for the results of next week's elections; and, thanks to the bravery and ingenuity of a few committed activists, we have a front row seat for Zimbabwe's continuing death agony. But we're unlikely to get up from the sofa, no matter what happens. So, yes, the revolution will be televised – but to what end?

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