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Radio station beats censors with SMS

One of the last sources of independent news available to Zimbabweans, after the Standard newspaper was forced to stop publication, is SW Radio Africa (SWRA), a station based in London and run by exiles. But recently, Robert Mugabe’s government began noise jamming the short wave frequency SWRA broadcasts on.

In a bid to beat the censorship, the station’s editor, Gerry Jackson, turned to SMS messaging.

Every day at about 5pm, a 160-character bulletin is prepared from the station’s news broadcast and sent to some 2,000 subscribers enrolled either via the station’s website, swradioafrica.com, or by text message.

“It’s a real precis of the news,” she says. “We get about three brief stories in, or more detail on one news story if we feel it needs it.”

Most SMS services come with an automatic identification in the FROM field, but the Zimbabwean mobile networks strip this out, so SWRA has to use a few of the precious characters to include a station ident in the body of the message.

So far there has been no sign that the government is trying to interfere.

“We have a pretty strong style, an identity,” said Jackson. “If someone tried to distort this, we’d know about it.” Blocking the messages completely would be difficult, after all anyone who does receive them can forward them on to anyone else. “That’s what we bank on – the viral effect,” she said.

The most serious problem Jackson faces is money. SWRA is funded by donations, and unlike SW radio, each SMS costs money. With 40 new users a day joining, “We’re getting towards the point where we might have to say, sorry, you’re not on the list,” she told telecoms.com.

The money is needed to pay the bulk-SMS provider that delivers the texts but due to the political sensitivity involved telecoms.com cannot name the company that provides this service.

But SMS is not the only way in which SWRA is disseminating the news. The website is accessible from within Zimbabwe and the few people to have internet service can also receive news from the station’s email list, blog, RSS feed or podcast.

Readers can donate to SWRA here.


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