Internet Shutdown in Zimbabwe: A Most Dangerous Precedent

January 18, 2019

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.”

By John Masuku

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.

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.

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.

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Cover photo: Twitter/Cídia Chissungo

John MasukuJohn 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.