Social media slammed over Mugabe reports

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Social media users and online newspapers in Zimbabwe have been criticised for “spreading falsehoods” about president Robert Mugabe's health.

Mugabe has returned to Zimbabwe, amid controversy over his alleged illness and confinement to a Singaporean hospital last week. Some reports on social networks even suggested that Mugabe, in power since Zimbabwe's independence from Britain in 1980, had died.

International media outlets picked up on the story, originally published by the Zimbabwe Mail, an online publication, and ran extensive articles about Mugabe's alleged illness.

But, last week, the 88-year-old leader returned home after a week-long absence. And Zimbabwe's media and information minister, Webster Shamu, has come out guns blazing, accusing online publications and the media in general of “spreading falsehoods” about Mugabe's health.

“Those were just rumours and this was worsened by the media [online]. As you can see the man [Mugabe] is very fit,” said Shamu.

Analysts say this could have armed Mugabe loyalists who are fighting for statutory regulation of the media as opposed to media self-regulation.

The Zimbabwe Mail subsequently fired its news editor, Tendai Matarutse, and observers said this was related to the story alleging Mugabe's “grave illness”.

“News editor Mr Tendai Matarutse is no longer working for us with immediate effect,” said Leighton Mushaninga, the publication's executive chairman, in a statement early this week.

Mugabe's loyalists within the Zanu PF party are now, according to informed sources, who declined to be named, considering pushing through a raft of policies to control what is reported by online-based publications such as news Web sites.

However, IT experts say it will be difficult to regulate the free flow of information on social networking sites.

“This has opened a can of worms and some people are becoming overzealous, making suggestions that we adopt policies that regulate online publications,” said one expert, who refused to be named.

Some experts, however, believe Mugabe was actually ill, although news of his illness is being managed tightly to avoid plunging the nation into a crisis.

Harare-based analyst Johannes Kwangwari said on Tuesday that “Mugabe's health is deteriorating with his age” and added that this was “common” for an 88-year-old person.

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