Online surveillance in Germany compared to South Africa: Lessons to be learnt
Ray Mwareya is an author from Zimbabwe. Among other things, he writes about social injustices, exploitation and political persecution in Zimbabwe, South Africa and other African states. During his three-month guest stay at the ZKM, he will use the opportunities provided by the »GLOBAL CONTROL AND CENSORSHIP« exhibition as a platform for further work on his topics and to speak with journalists from all over the world. He has a special interest in data driven journalism and digital surveillance. We spoke with him about his projects, the value of freedom of expression, the risks of digitalization and his first experiences of Germany.
The power of the written language: Social change through investigation and freely accessible information.
Stefanie Strigl: Ray, as I know you are a writer and journalist from Zimbabwe. Why are you so much interested in the written word?
Ray Mwareya: Because where I come from in Africa broadband Internet penetration is still low and not adopted widely. Only less than fifteen percent of households in Zimbabwe have access to Wi-Fi, a fixed line telephone or reliable home broadband Internet. The majority of our citizens in Zimbabwe particularly do not have access to high speed Internet that can deliver video or audio media swiftly. Therefore the written word on mobile phone screen is the easiest and most effective way to reach the public about important health, culture, economics or social topics.
STS: As a journalist, you are a Whistleblower, as you reveal social and political grievances in African countries. Which were the major topics you have discussed in the past – could you give us some examples?
RM: I have pursued the topic of cross border migration in Southern Africa. I have probed the reality of brutal politics and economics that drives cross border immigration. I have revealed how young immigrant mothers who work in South Africa (the continent`s most glamorous economy) are denied pregnancy and maternity benefits by employers who take advantage of their illegal immigration status. I have shown that, to save their jobs, these desperate immigrant mothers pay smuggling cartels to ferry their newly born babies across national borders so that attended families and grandparents could care for the babies. These young immigrant women are forced to do this because they want to protect their jobs. I am proud to say the story enabled me to become the first journalist in the world to win the UNITED NATIONS / ILO GLOBAL MIGRATION FAIR REPORTING AWARD. It is the first time the UN has organized such an award.
I have also took my effort to pursue how organized crime and slavery drives the illegal gold mining industry in South Africa. I have exposed in detail how international syndicates abduct poor boys from unstable African countries and smuggle them to become slaves who pan for gold without payment in South Africa´s old underground mines. I have touched on how police officers are paid bribes to albeit the conduct of these abductors who enslave young boys in South Africa’s old mines. This is a thriving illegal practice and some of the slavery gold finds its way to glittering foreign markets in Belgium, India or Dubai.
STS: Can you sensitize people for these issues through your articles?
RM: Yes, after the articles were published police details in South Africa conducted far-reaching raids on illegal gold syndicates in Springs, east of the country´s biggest town Johannesburg. Sadly it was only for a short time. Fleeing gold slaves were happy to identify with my story and readily provided me with amazing photographs and interviews.
Freedom of expression should be the standard not a luxury!
STS: In Germany, we live in a country of free speech. Unfortunately, in Zimbabwe this is not the case. How is your work as a journalist influenced by these restrictions of the freedom of speech?
RM: Zimbabwe has what I call “benevolence” on media freedom. Because of an English education and generally a high level of public education success by Africa´s standards reporters are given a reasonable amount of freedom to write critical reports. The freedom is there but it is restricted. Reporters can write anything about the country but they must avoid military and security topics. The media, I think, in Zimbabwe, has come to accept this restriction – and it is fair to say in Zimbabwe – the media censors itself. But another important angle is finance. Zimbabwe is facing at the moment one of Africa´s most pressing economic challenges. So the media has no finance budgets to pursue important investigative stories. The result is that cheap, tabloid like stories dominate the media space and important investigative pieces are cut off for lack of financing. Without money, again, I say the media in Zimbabwe censors itself.
STS: Due to your courageous reporting you have received international awards – but also threats. How do you deal with this discrepancy?
RM: I feel confident that my international exposure will discourage some overzealous official from harming me.
The key is to educate the public that freedom of speech is as important to a nation´s success as good economic policies.
STS: From this point of view: What is the key to freedom of speech for you?
RM: The key is to educate the public that freedom of speech is as important to a nation´s success as good economic policies. This is so because in African countries where economies are enjoying rapid progress like Angola, Ethiopia or Botswana, the public tends to think freedom of speech is a luxury that can be set aside.
The public awareness of censorship and surveillance in the digital sphere needs to be investigated and consolidated.
STS: What are your future plans? Are there any specific topics you plan to work on during your residency at the ZKM?
RM: My future plan is to understand the skills of data journalism. I want to understand how data journalism skills can be deployed to investigate and report on illicit tax abuse in Africa. Much of Africa’s tax wealth is siphoned into foreign bank accounts by sleazy officials. At the ZKM my aim is to compare the levels of public awareness about online censorship and surveillance between Germany and South Africa. In Germany, after the leaks of Edward Snowden, online surveillance has become a heated topic and the public shows an inspiring level awareness of what the state, intelligence corps or commercial data miners are doing. In South Africa, where I spent some of my working time, state surveillance on citizens using digital tools is becoming very rigorous. According to WikiLeaks’ exposures South Africa government snoops on its citizens without obtaining permission from courts. Sadly many in South Africa don’t know that the state is mirroring on their lives without permission. So my research is – Online surveillance in Germany compared to South Africa: Lessons to be learnt.
STS: What is your impression of the exhibition »GLOBAL CONTROL AND CENSORSHIP«?
RM: I am impressed by the mix up between futuristic technology and art. The liberal culture at the center is a marvel and something to admire. The exhibition is well set up and I have particularly been struck by the revelation how uncoded home and office cameras can give authorities anywhere in the world the ability to spy on you using your home camera. This has been quite a frightening revelation for me. I feel so highly educated by the exhibition already. I would not mind attending the exhibition every year.
STS: It is your first time away from Africa, what is the most striking difference?
RM: The level of technology in Germany compared to Africa is massive. Automation and technology in Germany is thousands of miles ahead of Africa. It´s a lesson for me, too, that if Africa wishes to accelerate its growth, technology must be meshed with art, transport, health and everything. I should say the streets in Germany are just smart which is excellent for preserving the environment. But I think people in Germany speak in too low volume voices. I wish you could speak louder in the streets like in Africa. Lol. DANKE! And I love your bicycles.
We give thanks for these personal insights and hope to find out much more about and through Ray’s work!
About Ray Mwareya
Ray Mwareya is from Zimbabwe. He is employed as a humanitarian reporter by the Global South Development Magazine and also writes for the London Guardian News, Equal Times Magazine, The Mail and Guardian News, The Africa Agri Business Magazine, The Think Africa Press, Waging Non Violence Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The British Ecologist Magazine, Canada Broadcasting Corporation and The Irish Sunday World.
As a journalist, Ray Mwareya is a type of Whistleblower. His courageous reporting about social injustices, the torture and enslavement of workers, corruption, exploitation and political persecution in Zimbabwe, South Africa and other African states has earned him international awards – along with opposition: He has suffered persecution in Zimbabwe for years.