Zimbabwe: President Mnangagwa doesn’t have the right to shut down the internet


Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 23 January 2019 (Credit: World Economic Forum)

Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2018 (Credit: World Economic Forum)

Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa tweeted on 20 January that “in light of the economic situation” he would be cutting short his “highly productive” European junket to return home. This wasn’t the whole story. What forced him to come back early was a crisis precipitated by the steep fuel price hike he announced on 12 January just before he flew off.

Many people first heard of the increase via social media, and the initial calls to protest came online from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions secretary general Peter Mutasa and #ThisFlag activist Evan Mawarire, who was shortlisted for the 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards, who was released on bail on Wednesday 30 January. Mawarire is facing charges of treason related to a three-day strike that began on 14 January to protest the price hike.

Things immediately turned violent, with looting and arson causing millions of dollars worth of damage and clashes with police and military, responding with the brutality they are renowned for, leaving hundreds injured and an estimated 12 people dead. Those arrested face “assault, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment“.

Following the protests, Zimbabwe’s government forced a “total internet shutdown” from 15-17 January, with a brief restoration on 16 January. No one anticipated that the government would block the entire internet. Internet service providers only told their customers of the shutdown after Energy Mutodi, the deputy minister of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, spun it to Zimbabweans on national television that the internet was “slow” because it was “congested”.

On 21 January judge Owen Tagu in Zimbabwe’s high court, following an urgent appeal by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Media Institute of Southern Africa challenging the disruptions, ruled that the government exceeded its mandate in ordering the internet blackout during the protests.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Media Institute of Southern Africa argued that the state security minister who issued the directive for the shutdowns had no authority to do so. Tagu concurred.

Until the restoration of the internet, Zimbabweans still couldn’t access Whatsapp, Facebook, Youtube and Twitter without a virtual private network.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Media Institute of Southern Africa do not rule out another court hearing as Zimbabwe’s Interception of Communications Act “provides for the lawful interception and monitoring of certain communications in the course of their transmission through a telecommunication, postal or any other related service or system in Zimbabwe; to provide for the establishment of a monitoring centre; and to provide for any other matters connected with or incidental to the foregoing”.

Only the president has the power to issue a directive for the interception of anybody’s communications. However, as Denford Halimani, one of the lawyers for the applicants, told Index on Censorship, not even the president can shut down the internet: “The act does not give him that power. If parliament had intended to give him that power it would have said in addition to intercepting you can also shut down the internet for everyone.”

The internet has been integral to recent events in Zimbabwe, which may explain the government’s current nervousness. The military and those behind the November 2017 coup used social media to call on citizens to march in support of Mnangagwa. Thousands heeded the call and possibly helped persuade Mugabe, who had until then stubbornly refused to step down, to go.

Social media, specifically Whatsapp, was the medium of choice for disseminating information on the January 2018 strike and on what was going on in various parts of the country.

Mnangagwa may have missed the irony that when he made his announcement to return home on Twitter, but Zimbabwean Twitter users did not. Simbabrashe Chirara responded in Shona, the most widely spoken language in Zimbabwe: “The internet is blocked so who are you talking to, comrade?” With the widespread use of VPN’s, as recommended by the tech-savvy, many Zimbabweans are seemingly unfazed by the social media blackout.

Others wondered why he was talking about the “economic situation” without addressing the issue of those killed by the security forces. When gruesome footage of an attack on a protester by security officials featured in a Sky News report, Mnangagwa could no longer remain silent on the matter. In a statement on 28 January, the president expressed how “appalled” he was, adding that he has ordered the arrest of those behind it.

With the ongoing violence, questions are now being asked as to whether Mnangagwa’s has control over the country, with many believing that Zimbabwe is effectively a military state.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1549984748531-9fde297e-f33f-1″ taxonomies=”173″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Ability to protest peacefully is a hallmark of a functioning democracy


Index on Censorship is alarmed by the increasing number of restrictions being placed on protests globally, which includes attempts by governments to shut down communications networks to prevent people from mobilising. Most recently, the government of Zimbabwe imposed a communications blackout in an attempt to smother a national strike called by unions in response to a fuel price hike.

The ability to protest peacefully is a hallmark of a functioning democracy. International treaties recognise the right to protest through protections related to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and freedom of speech.

In the past week, it is reported that Zimbabwe’s police and soldiers have beaten civilians, shot 12 people dead and detained at least 600 people. This includes Pastor Evan Mawarire, a former Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award nominee, an activist prominent on social media.

“To live freely means being able to challenge those in power without fear of harm or persecution,” said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “We urge the international community to speak out in defence of these freedoms and we call on Zimbabwe to release those it has wrongfully arrested, end the practice of internet shutdown, and permit its people to protest in peace.”[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1548072770185-fb1f38fa-2cb0-3″ taxonomies=”173, 7380, 9018″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Zimbabwe must release Evan Mawarire and drop all charges

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Index on Censorship calls for the dropping of all charges and immediate release of activist Evan Mawarire, who was arrested in Zimbabwe on Wednesday and accused of treason on Thursday.

Police arrested Mawarire at his home on Wednesday morning as protests against soaring fuel prices entered their third day. On Thursday, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reported that Mawarire had been charged with subverting a constitutional government in connection with a video he issued earlier in the week urging people to stay away from work and insisting that protests remain peaceful. Mawarire was initially charged with inciting violence.

Several people have been killed and hundreds arrested in the protests. Internet access has been suspended by mobile networks on government orders.

Mawarire ignited one of the most important protest movements in Zimbabwe’s recent history in 2016 when he posted a video of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag and voiced his frustration at the state of the nation. He has since become known worldwide as a vocal and prominent critic of the government.

Mawarire’s #ThisFlag videos and hashtag protesting against the then president Robert Mugabe and his government went viral in 2016, sparking protests and a boycott attended by over an estimated eight million people. Mr Mugabe resigned in 2017 following a military takeover and mass demonstrations. President Emmerson Mnangagwa came into power on the promise of change but he has been accused of failing to live up to his promises,  with Zimbabweans suffering rocketing inflation and a decline in living standards.

Mawarire was previously arrested in the aftermath of the original #ThisFlag videos, when he was charged with inciting public disorder. The prosecution then added the more severe charge of subversion on the day of his trial without notifying his legal team. During his trial, a magistrate judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the prosecution to bring new charges in court and acquitted Mawarire of all charges.

“I had the immense good fortune to meet Evan at a conference in Australia last year,” said Index on Censorship chief executive Jodie Ginsberg. “He spoke movingly and with great humility about his passion for Zimbabwe and seeing reform of the country in his children’s lifetimes. Zimbabwe must show it is serious about change, and that means respecting the rights of those who criticise the government and who, like Evan, advocate change through peaceful means.”

Evan Mawarire was shortlisted for the 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards. Alp Toker, a 2017 Freedom of Expression Award winner in the digital activism category and whose organisation monitors internet shutdowns worldwide expressed concern at attempts to limit information being shared in Zimbabwe: “NetBlocks measurements present clear evidence of a targeted and intentional effort to disrupt lines of communication in Zimbabwe. Attempts to curtail the free flow of information impede and do not assist justice. We call on the state to respect the constitutional right to free opinion and expression of its citizens.”[/vc_column_text][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1547741087906-88e96647-d3c5-1″ taxonomies=”9018″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

#IndexAwards2017: Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag protest brings hope to a nation


2017 Freedom of Expression Awards link

In May 2016, Baptist pastor Evan Mawarire began the most important protest movement in Zimbabwe’s recent history when he posted a video of himself draped in the Zimbabwean flag, expressing his frustration at the state of the nation. A subsequent series of YouTube videos and the hashtag Mawarire used, #ThisFlag, went viral, sparking protests and a boycott called by Mawarire, which he estimates was attended by over eight million people. A scale of public protest previously inconceivable, the impact was so strong that private possession of Zimbabwe’s national flag has since been banned.

“I called the campaign #ThisFlag because it encouraged citizens to get involved in reclaiming national pride by condemning the shameless actions of government and its officials,” Mawarire told Index on Censorship.

Mawarire went into hiding soon after the videos release, fearing for his safety following an attempted abduction. He was arrested and charged with inciting public disorder, but the prosecution then added the more severe charge of subversion on the day of his trial without notifying his legal team. During his trial, a magistrate judge ruled that it was unconstitutional for the prosecution to bring new charges in court and acquitted Mawarire of all charges.

The pastor then temporarily left the country following death threats. He returned on 1 February, where he was immediately rearrested at Harare International Airport on his return to the country from New York for “subverting the constitutionally elected government”.

Index spoke with Mawarire before his return to Zimbabwe. He recorded a message to be posted in the result of his arrest.

On 8 February, Mawarire was granted bail. The high Court ruled that he must surrender his passport, report twice a week to the police and pay a $300 bond. His trial has been postponed and his next hearing is on 21 April.

See the full shortlist for Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Awards 2017 here.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row full_width=”stretch_row_content” equal_height=”yes” el_class=”text_white” css=”.vc_custom_1490258749071{background-color: #cb3000 !important;}”][vc_column width=”1/2″][vc_custom_heading text=”Support the Index Fellowship.” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:28|text_align:center” use_theme_fonts=”yes” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fsupport-the-freedom-of-expression-awards%2F|||”][vc_column_text]

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