By Natasha Msonza
In 2013, Free Press Unlimited (FPU) launched a pilot project dubbed Mobile Community Zimbabwe (MCZ) aimed at contributing to media plurality and diversity.
The project’s goal was to advance democratic participation and active citizenship of marginalized communities through citizen journalism.
With support from FPU, 46 citizen journalists were equipped with skills to tell the alternative Zimbabwean story using mobile telephone technologies, specifically, the mobile application StoryMaker.
StoryMaker is a free open source software designed by Small World News, a US based company which enables a user to record and assemble audio, picture and video content into finished formats using an android device.
In this way, mobile phones have enabled citizen journalists to produce high-quality content without having to lug around heavy camera equipment or use illustrious editing software.
Activating the StoryMaker app is like having a mobile studio: in effect, MCZ has redefined modern storytelling.
Activating citizen journalists to tell alternative stories has filled a void in the current Zimbabwean media landscape.
Currently, traditional media is fragmented and polarized and predominantly preoccupied with gamatox, zvipfukuto and other politics of the day, while the humanistic, community-level stories are relegated to the back-bench.
Although many Zimbabweans now access world news via subscriptions to DSTV and South African-based channels, this leaves them with little knowledge of what is actually going on in their own country.
Zimbabwe’s current socio-economic crunch currently has also seen many media houses significantly cut down on operations, meaning that they have smaller networks of stringers.
This restricted media environment greatly inhibits the ability of citizens to access alternative sources of information that are fair, balanced and about them.
The Mobile Community Zimbabwe project offers high-quality practical skills training in citizen journalism and digital literacy, empowering selected young people with digital storytelling techniques to effectively document and share community-based stories that are often ignored or omitted by the mainstream media.
With a robust training curriculum offering skills ranging from video composition and editing, to digital security, what used to be the preserve of broadcast journalism students has become open to anyone holding a smartphone.
Specialized knowledge of video editing is no longer a prerequisite to producing quality video content.
An evaluative stakeholder meeting held in 2013 following the pilot phase suggested that the MCZ project could significantly benefit tertiary journalism training institutions that are currently plagued by a lack of training equipment and contemporary knowledge.
As a result, in 2015 the MCZ project trained a further 80 individuals countrywide in mobile storytelling, out of whom 30 were students from universities.
Throughout the project period, it has been heartening to see how the MCZ network of citizen reporters and independent bloggers is actively providing coverage of news and events taking place in different parts of the country.
This is not only providing an outlet for alternative news, but also raising the professional profile of each contributor.
Observing how the MCZ network interacts in their WhatsApp groups and sharing news about what is happening in their localities across the country, there is no doubt that ICTs and mobile storytelling technologies have contributed to a dramatic shift.
In short, it has empowered individuals on an unprecedented scale, and provided greater opportunities for civic participation than traditional mass media.
The MCZ network has created a fluid support process that replaces what would otherwise have been a diary meeting to determine the relevance and importance of a story and how it should be told, through validating each other’s story ideas.
Encouraged by their network of colleagues, citizen journalists feel empowered to use their initiative and endeavor to tell stories about the different experiences in their communities.
A key benefit of the combined communications platforms across different social networks is that the citizen journalists –separated geographically across different cities – can support each other with technical and reporting advice, but also with much-needed morale-boosts.
MCZ has generated friendly competition among the citizen journalists, with each vying to produce the best video, audio or picture story everyday.
It appears that there is great value in constantly challenging and motivating citizen journalists in the work that they do, giving them consistent feedback, both from their peers and from the project.
A project structured in this way has resulted in a stronger, more committed network that advances the democratic participation and active citizenship of marginalized peoples and communities.
Such a project also provides a way for news media to give a voice to communities by promoting engaged dialogue and providing alternative perspectives on issues that impact today’s societies.
The mobile phone with a camera is now a tool of journalism. It can be used by people formerly known as the ‘audience’ and has elevated citizen journalism to a whole new level.
Stories told like this, by people who are not necessarily journalists, but perform acts of journalism, prove that this is something that any of us can do. Instead of being passive consumers of news, we are now capable of being participants in the news production process at every level.
Natasha coordinates the MCZ Project in Zimbabwe. She is an information activist and communication strategist passionate about human rights and social justice.