Author: Dumisani Moyo
Dumisani Moyo examines the role that mobile phones played in the 2008 elections in Zimbabwe. Comparing this election to previous elections in the region, the article looks at the role that organizations such as Kubatana, Sangonet, and Fahamu utilized mass SMS systems such as FrontlineSMS to communicate breaking news in a timely fashion to wide audiences. Ultimately, Moyo makes the argument that mobile phones have the power to shift election monitoring responsibilities from observer missions, which are increasingly political institutions over time, to citizen monitors, which he sees as the most impartial and effective form of election observer.
In comparison to other studies that largely focus on cellphone diffusion rates, this article examines the specific ways in which SMS systems were used during elections, and argues that these communication tools have changed the level of agency in the individual. Also taking an institutional approach to his analysis, Moyo notes that traditional, in-person election monitoring, is greatly hindered by the inability of international observers to be physically present at all voting sights both because of a shortage of staff relative to voting sites, but as well as because of the potential for violence in the region. Often “political tensions are high, certain areas are declared ‘no-go areas’, where observers are discouraged to visit.” Again, by being empowered to communicate messages to wide audiences, individuals are not only able to exercise their own voice, but also play a critical role in improving mass efforts at electoral oversight and good governance.
Just as a final, and somewhat integral point made in the article: Having a phone doesn’t necessarily make one a citizen journalist. In countries where cell phone diffusion is the highest (eg. South Africa), there is some of the least amount of civic activism/citizen journalism. Rather, it takes “knowledge about the capacity of the technology, an organising force at the centre and often some funding to provide the necessary equipment or software that makes distribution of bulk messages possible”
Article Reviewed: Moyo, Dumisani, The New Media as Monitors of Democracy: Mobile Phones and Zimbabwe’s 2008 Election, Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, Paper presented at the Conference on Election Processes, Liberation Movements and Democratic Change in Africa, Organized by IESE and CMI, Maputo, 8-11 April 2010