Freedomfone win the Innovation Award sponsored by Google

Freedomfone by Kubatana accept the Innovation Award, which recognises innovation and original use of new technology to circumvent censorship and foster debate, argument or dissent

Accepting the award FreedomFone activist Upenyu Makoni-Muchemwa said:

Repressive governments deliberately hinder people’s access to information to entrench control and minimise dissent. New media technologies, and the innovative uses of old media, challenge this control. The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe’s primary objective is to make human rights and civic information accessible from a centralised, electronic source. We use the Internet, email, blogging, SMS, Freedom Fone, DVDs and print publications to share this information with Zimbabweans living in urban and rural locations.

Our technical director, Brenda Burrell had a vision to enable activists and NGOs to create short form audio programmes, which people could call-in to listen to using their phones. Thus Freedom Fone was conceptualised.

Information can be shared and received at anytime in any language wherever there is mobile coverage. Traditional roadblocks of licensing, regulation and literacy are bypassed, and freedom of expression is broadened. However, it is not surprising that a regime which so thoroughly seeks to suppress dissent and suffocate opportunities for free expression and debate, should be threatened by a service which broadens access to information and encourages the open exchange of opinion.

The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe, an entity generally acknowledged to have been set up to control, rather than to expand the access to information, advised Kubatana that we were operating an “unlicensed broadcasting service” and that we were in violation of the law by making these audio dramas accessible over phones.

We have sought advice from both local and regional legal practitioners, and the opinion is that the Freedom Fone services provided by Kubatana are not in violation of any broadcasting laws. Currently Kubatana is seeking support to challenge the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe in court. Kubatana’s Freedom Fone and services like it provide new opportunities for communication, mobilisation and activism.

In repressive environments, this will be met with resistance. However, it is important not to buckle under this pressure or constrain one’s own creative use of technology. Rather, we must use innovative technologies to expand access to information and broaden discussions of censorship, repression and control of the media environment. We are honoured to receive this award and would like to take this opportunity to thank our various donors and supporters for enabling our work. Most importantly we would like to thank the people who make up the Kubatana Community in Zimbabwe.


Innovation nominees

Recognising innovation and original use of new technology to circumvent censorship and foster debate, argument or dissent

Freedom Fone by Kubatana, mobile phone technology NGO, ZimbabweFreedom Fone

Kubatana is an NGO based in Harare that uses a variety of new and traditional media to encourage ordinary Zimbabweans to be informed, inspired and active about civic and human rights issues. As an organisation, it continuously seeks innovative fixes to the challenges of sharing independent information in Zimbabwe’s restrictive media environment. Freedom Fone is one of Kubatana’s solutions. An open-source software, Freedom Fone helps organisations create interactive voice response (IVR) menus to enable them to share pre-recorded audio information in any language via mobile phones and landlines with their members or the general public. The software is aimed at organisations or individuals wishing to set up interactive information services for users where the free flow of information may be denied for economic, political, technological or other reasons. Freedom Fone is one of the many ways Kubatana reaches across the digital divide to inform and inspire the vast majority of Zimbabweans who do not have regular or affordable internet access.

ObscuraCam, smartphone app, USA

ObscuraCamObscuraCam is a free smartphone application that uses facial recognition to blur individual faces automatically. Developed by WITNESS and the Guardian Project, it enables users to protect their personal security, privacy and anonymity. In 2011 and 2012, uprisings throughout the Middle East have shown the power and danger of mobile video footage. ObscuraCam helps protect activists who fear reprisals but want to safely capture evidence of state brutality. Launched in June 2011 and based in the USA, ObscuraCam is the only facial blurring or masking application that has responded to the concerns of human rights groups, citizen activists and journalists. In addition to obscuring faces, the application removes identifying data such as GPS location data and the phone make and model., data visualisation resource, international was created to help make data visualisation more accessible to the general public. It calls itself “a community of creative people making sense of complex issues through data and design… and a shared space and free resource to help you achieve this goal”.Data analysts and graphic designers have set themselves the challenge of sharing a constantly proliferating body of public data in an accessible form. Raw data on its own might as well be censored; visualisation opens the door to open information that otherwise would be left languishing on hard disks or, if downloaded, unintelligible to the average citizen. The project offers a place to showcase work, discover remarkable visualisations and visually explore some of today’s most pressing global issues.  Created by GE and Seed Media Group, promotes information literacy. The portal has had a remarkable year.

Telecomix, internet activists, across Europe

TelecomixTelecomix is the collective name for a decentralised group of internet activists operating in Europe. Their focus is to expose threats to freedom of speech online. During one operation, Telecomix activists published a huge package of data which proved that the Syrian government was carrying out mass surveillance of thousands of its citizens’ internet usage. Telecomix’s revelation that the technology used was supplied by US firm Blue Coat Systems has prompted serious investigations into the involvement of western technology firms in helping repressive regimes spy on their people. In mid-August 2011, Telecomix’s dispersed group of hackers came together to target Syria’s internet. Those attempting to access the internet though their normal browsers were confronted with a blank page bearing a warning: “This is a deliberate, temporary internet breakdown. Please read carefully and spread the following message. Your internet activity is monitored.” Following this, a page flashed up describing how to take precautions to encrypt usage.

Freedom of Expression Awards 2012

supported by

In Zimbabwe, it’s not the media that spreads the news

In places like Zimbabwe the need for “outsider” critique is essential: solipsistic regimes create complex narratives about betrayal and patriotism;  no more so than in Zimbabwe.  Whether material originates from “inside” or “outside” the regime can be important in establishing its veracity.

A very small minority of Zimbabweans (about 3 per cent) live in isolated elite comfort, with their cable televisions  buffering the reality of Zimbabwe’s weak local media situation, watching whatever they feel like, from Hollywood films  to BBC to Al Jazeera and DSTV, whilst the rest of the citizens either see it with their own eyes, or rely on the local media.

And herein lies the problem: no critical, debating, investigative or contextual news gets reported.

The recent news that the government plans to invoke a peculiar mangle of laws to prevent “foreign” papers (including the Sunday Times and various South African papers) distributing unless they have local offices,  means that Zimbabweans access to information is even more limited than it was previously.

For some wealthier Zimbabweans,  this move is not necessarily being greeted with alarm. Linda, a Zimbabwean journalist in who  works across the region, says “Yes, I get foreign media, I like it. But it’s a pose, getting your information from abroad. Local media is fine. We get constant  Russian television, that’s sufficient.” Others, however are astonished, and see this bill as an extension of the theme that Zimbabwe’s media really only exists to bolster and defend the ailing, and increasingly vulnerable president Mugabe.

Zimbabwe is a peculiar beast: at one level  it is now several  steps away from the hyper-inflation days of 2008. But, it is still floundering in economic and social chaos. Since the introduction of the Botswana pula, the South African rand and the US dollar, trade is improving, but this is not reflected in the health of the country’s media.

In the absence of spare cash to buy papers, the shoddy state of local newspapers, and the restrictions imposed on media operations, people get inventive. Kubutana stays afloat using a variety of techniques which employ both technology and people’s ability to talk to each other face to face.  They’ve changed the way milions of people vote in Zimbabwe. They provide a symbolic and actual hub for information.  Still it’s the life on the  street that is important, the constant mingling, chatting and gossiping that keeps the public sphere alive, with a few exceptions.

In this context, the Zimbabwean market traders and street vendors are essential. They know stuff. They see it with their own eyes and they constantly have a stream of people to interact with: at a micro level they are intellectual hubs. When the licencing system of street fruit vendors forced Tunisian Mohammed Bouazizi to burn himself to death, Zimbabwe’s street traders clocked it.

In January 2012 in Harare, several police officers were left injured during clashes involving removing street vendors from central areas. The Zimbabwean reported that two vendors had to be hospitalised after being tortured by police, and two reporters from the local newspaper the Daily News were detained by police.  But they didn’t give reasons, context or views of those involved. Although the protests are a long way from sparking a revolution in Zimbabwe, the determination of vendors to fight for their livelihoods is a sign that people will speak out.

Street vendors, like many in Africa, are living a hand to mouth existence, often moonlighting several jobs, and the licencing system is a well-known ploy of governments here in the region to “clean up” their unsightly presence- particularly when there’s foreign dignitaries visiting, or an African Union delegation. Even streets get renamed.  It’s all about looking good, yet paradoxically street vendors are essential for the large majority’s needs. They only exist because of the numerous trade agreements the Zimbabwean government has signed with the Chinese to ensure there’s a steady flow of buckets, washing up bowls, plates and radios, which of course local people need, want, and it’s all they can afford. But still Zimbabweans are ambivalent and disparaging “We want real money, not zhing-zhong,” taxi driver Jourbet Buthelezi, referring to the pejorative term Zimbabweans use for sub-standard Chinese goods.