After years of working for various news outlets, Nelson Banya and Ranga Mberi introduced their news website, newZWire, in 2018. In launching it, the duo sought to broadcast independent voices onto Zimbabwe’s media landscape.
“Our desire was to provide a platform for news analysis and commentary,” said Mberi, who has previously served as news editor at the Financial Gazette and worked in public relations. His co-editor Banya has worked with Reuters and The Source.
They knew there was a segment of the market hungry to read beyond the headlines and to have a firmer understanding of what was happening around them. “Some just want access to facts and calm, informed opinions that aren’t too loud or toxic,” Mberi added.
But they weren’t the only ones who had identified that need in Zimbabwe. The onset of online media platforms has made possible an alternative information source in the country’s polarized media space, once dominated by state-controlled media and a few independent publications, as Kudzayi Zvinavashe from the Content Creators Network ZW, said.
“The Network was formed under the realization that Zimbabwe’s civic space and free expression online was under threat and content creators were being targeted by state actors for the work they do,” said Zvinavashe.
Content Creators Network ZW encompasses various media houses including The NewsHawks, Kubatana, TellZim, and CiteZW, all independent establishments. The network further incorporates ZimFact, Bustop TV, and Magamba Network which runs Open Parly, the majority carrying content deemed critical of the government. Bustop TV and Magamba Network are YouTube channels that broadcast skits that take aim at government excesses.
Though popular, this operation of online platforms faces serious financial obstacles. “It is challenging, but exciting at the same time. The environment might not always be ideal economically, but the excitement is in finding the niche areas where we can excel,” said Mberi. “Data costs are high so we strive to create content that is worth the trouble for those who read what we put out.”
Even with limited resources, some online publications are pursuing investigative journalism. ZimLive.com, established in July 2018, boldly published leaked phone calls attributed to former Zimbabwean Vice President Kembo Mohadi earlier this year. That created a sex scandal that ultimately led him to resign from his post.
However, the subdued economic environment translates into a lack of advertisers, though “a few content creators have found innovative ways of raising funds to meet operating costs,” Zvinavashe said.
Some of the content creators’ channels are monetized, guaranteeing them a steady income to cover their overhead costs. Local advocacy groups will sometimes commission them to raise awareness about corruption, abuse, and rape issues.
newZWire, for example, has no external funding and solely depends on Google ads as well as other commercial ads, according to Mberi.
Independent content creators believe they are the future of content creation and are innovating to make it a reality.
A breath of fresh air
Edwin Muparadzi, 31, is a Harare resident and a regular consumer of online news. He is ecstatic about the arrival of independent content creators. “Unlike before, when we were limited to the state broadcaster, we can now access a variety of news from independent content producers. Their newscast and skits are refreshing.”
The majority of their viewers are Zimbabweans based in the diaspora, who enjoy unlimited internet access, and wish to stay in touch with their country.
Operating on a shoestring budget, most content creators, including newZWire, rely on freelancers to generate content.
Every penny the website generates must be put to good use, Mberi said. “We don’t have the big money and staff of bigger organizations. So we have had to always be innovative in how to position ourselves in the digital space and put the near-zero resources we have to good effect.”
With the proliferation of misinformation from various unverified platforms, content creators seek to maintain credibility in their work output. “Whether one is at an established media organization or an independent one, credibility of content is essential,” Mberi said.
The editor added that they assume responsibility for what they publish. “One key difference is that being independent means, just as the name suggests, you have sole and direct responsibility for what you publish. This means your name is directly tied to the credibility, or otherwise, of your content.”
Limited internet access
Their local consumers are not spared by the surging data costs. In January 2021, five million Zimbabweans had access to the internet, or one third of the population. This low penetration is affecting online content creators.
“Because data costs are high, it is not always easy for consumers, especially those in Zimbabwe, to consume as much content as they want to,” Mberi said. “So we are always looking for ways to present our news content in the easiest ways possible for people to access it.”
Barring their recorded clashes with the state, the independent creators maintain a healthy working relationship with their other media peers.
Online platforms, Mberi believes, must be given their due attention, unlike in the past when print outlets were given attention.
“Often, in Zimbabwe, online content creators are treated as second-class in terms of access to officials or the information they put out,” the newZWire editor said. “This is a hangover from the past and has to be challenged, especially given the work online platforms have produced over recent years.”
The polarization of the local media space also remains a threat to independent content creators. “We live in a polarized environment; often criticism of government policies is taken as a personal attack,” Mberi said.
Derick Matsengarwodzi is a content creator with experience in the media, public relations, advertising and marketing industries, including NGOs. He contributes to regional and international publications.