By John Masuku
Faced with violent demonstrations, the government of Zimbabwe chose to cut off the internet. That was by far the worst option in a country claiming to be “open for business.”
Harare, Zimbabwe — What were originally planned to be peaceful demonstrations and strikes over astronomical rises in the cost of hard-to-get fuel and basic commodities in Zimbabwe turned nasty right from the onset on 14 January, giving the government of President Emmerson Mnangagwa the justification they needed to shut down the internet and social media.
Information, police and intelligence ministers all blamed the cyberspace for fueling violence, hate and instability in major cities like the capital Harare and Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. The waves of violence resulted in deaths and injuries, wanton destruction of property including supermarkets, toll gates or cars, and indiscriminate looting.
Just before jetting out on a five-nation European tour, President Mnangagwa seemed to have indirectly triggered the ongoing crisis after he personally announced huge price hikes for gasoline and the plan to unrealistically peg the local surrogate bond currency to the U.S. dollar, a decision that just boosted the black market.
Open for Business, Closed for Communication?
The internet shutdown shattered all forms of communication with the local and international communities in a country whose leader has described it as being “open for business” since the November 2017 military coup that toppled Robert Mugabe, the former strongman at the helm of Zimbabwe for 37 years.
Radio stations resorted to musical programs as they could not bring guests for talk shows and current affairs programs while online publications and freelance journalists whose livelihoods depend entirely on the internet were where left stranded as they could not circulate their content for remuneration.
The Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), a local NGO bringing together journalists, editors, researchers and other watchdog bodies cried foul, saying that the internet shutdown enormously affected critical sectors (including healthcare, education and business) that rely on online services to transact and operate. They stressed that the situation was compounded by the incapacitation of the media to carry out their job to produce and disseminate news and information for the public.
“The internet is an integral part of people’s lives as they use the platform to access information, exercise their right to free expression and communicate,” MAZ said in a statement.
“Without internet all sectors will be ground to a halt.”
Shutting the internet even runs athwart the law. Two provisions in Zimbabwe’s Constitution expressly guarantee citizens’ rights to free expression and access to information, which enables them to make informed decisions. “Depriving citizens of these rights only serves to worsen the crisis as the general populace is not informed of what is currently obtaining in the country as there is an information blackout,” according to MAZ.
The Kill Switch: Handle with Care
But the worst might yet to come. An advocacy group, Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) was concerned that some other legal provisions, for example specific conditions set out in the Interception of Communications Act, can be used in the future to justify the shutdown for up to six months. The same provisions were used as legal justification for the current shutdown.
“Such arbitrary action goes against constitutional provisions setting out the justifiable ground on which fundamental rights such as access to information and free expression can be limited,”
according to MISA. “The act’s scope is limited to the monitoring and interception of communication and does not extend to the disruption of services in the country.”
But the government defiantly put its foot down describing the demonstrations, which left eight people dead, as “terrorism,” adding that they were in a hurry to see the proposed Cyber Security Bill sailing through Parliament as fast as possible. Civil society slammed the bill, saying that it is a serious threat to human rights. Among other things, the bill is envisaged to allow authorities to discretionarily seize computers and mobile phones during investigations including devices that have nothing to do with the investigation.
The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), whose leader Nelson Chamisa, narrowly defeated by Mnangagwa in a controversial election last July, has been blamed for backing organizations and activists who successfully mobilized for mass stayaways, had its headquarters petrol-bombed. However, neither the incident nor the party denying the accusations that it instigated the mayhem were covered by Zimbabwe’s public media. Therefore, it was social media that took on the mission to keep the populace abreast of what was happening in the country through news stories, video and audio clips circulated on WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.
Civil society urged the government to comply with the law, particularly the constitutional guarantees for access to information and freedom of expression. By 16 January, the internet had been restored, social media remained shut and only accessed through virtual private network (VPN) and other applications.
But after the lamentable government reaction to the crisis, few believe that meddling with the internet will not happen again.
John Masuku is a Zimbabwe-based broadcast journalist and Executive Director of Radio Voice of the People (VOP). He is a fellow of the Center for Media, Data and Society (CMDS) at the CEU in Budapest, Hungary. John can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @john_masuku