Stifling the Voices of Opposition: Internet Restriction in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s response to anti-government political organizing over social media tools, including WhatsApp

Anti-Mugabe protestors take to the streets of Harare in July 2016. (https://goo.gl/QNO58n)

On July 15, 2016, in the midst of anti-government protests, citizen activists in Zimbabwe organized a national shutdown of businesses. WhatsApp became inaccessible for nearly 5 hours, leading to suspicions of government interference. Citizens were arrested and charged with “criminal nuisance” under the Criminal Codification Act for the dissemination of anti-government messages over private group messages. Zimbabwe is a nation where only 50 percent of citizens have access to the internet. Its President, Robert Mugabe, is a 92-year old authoritarian known for human rights abuses. Social media, the battleground for political and citizen activism, have become targets for government suppression and online journalists face intimidation and violence for voicing their opinions. In response to the dissent of his people, Mugabe silenced their electronic voices in order to prevent continued uprisings.

In fact, 67 percent of internet users in Zimbabwe are subject to internet censorship, and criticism of the government or military could have serious consequences. Zimbabweans began to utilize social media platforms in 2016 to organize protests and demonstrations, expressing their discontent towards the government and their 30 year tyrant freely. WhatsApp became an increasingly popular medium for political dissent due to the relative anonymity which it gives users and its wide availability on smartphones, including in areas of rural Zimbabwe. Young Zimbabwean activists have taken to social media to express discontent at the economic and political instability of their country and organize amongst each other to shut down a majority of Zimbabwe schools, shops, and business. However, President Mugabe has actively limited internet access and censored online communication tools in order to stifle political opposition and maintain the appearance of order.

Photo of the #ThisFlag social media campaign, shared over WhatsApp to organize anti-Mugabe protestors. (https://goo.gl/w9OICT)

Internet restriction as a political silencing tool is not unique to Zimbabwe. During the Arab Spring in 2011, the Egyptian government disabled internet access in response to civilian protests. Access to Facebook and Twitter, major platforms for the Egyptian uprisings, was severed, drastically hindering the ability of activists to stay connected. However, analysts of the Arab Spring argue that the censorship of social media during the protests actually pushed more people to the streets, where they were able to directly interact with each other in large demonstrations against the government. Images in our history books will depict crowds of Egyptian citizens reclaiming the streets of their nation largely due to the severe shutdown of internet and online communication by their authoritarian leader. Could we expect to see similar uprisings in Zimbabwe, as the authoritarian President Robert Mugabe grows even older and the citizens grow even more restless for change?

Egyptian Protestors in Cairo demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year rule, January 2011. (https://goo.gl/F3lwX7)

Particularly for Zimbabwe, social media gives citizens the power to control their own news and communicate long distances. This power can propel social movements by connecting individuals with similar ideas, as seen in the organization of large amounts of Zimbabweans in 2016. Without the accessibility of WhatsApp to citizens in both urban and rural Zimbabwe, communications to the far borders of the country would have been limited, drastically decreasing the effectiveness of the national protests. In limiting internet access; shutting down social media platforms; and punishing free speech over cyberspace, the authoritarian government of Zimbabwe is effectively imposing a gag order against dissent. With the inability to disseminate citizen-driven news, the fight for democracy and freedom in Zimbabwe will be greatly hindered.

Can you locate Zimbabwe on a map? If not, it is guaranteed that with a quick Google search you would discover that Zimbabwe rests comfortably under Zambia on the continent of Africa. Educational institutions, like Colby, pride themselves on their ability to transcend distances like these, and utilize internet and communication technologies to diversify learning experiences. In the digital age of the Western World, it is easy to see the positive effects of instant internet communication: countries and cultures across the globe are able to connect in real time, expanding the horizons of knowledge and eliminating traditional borders. It is simple, then, to disregard the fact that internet freedom is a privilege that is not gifted to all. According to Freedom House, an American human rights organization, internet freedom has continued to decline in the last six years, and as of 2016 only about half of internet users live in a country in which their online activity is not subject to censorship. Social media serves as a tool in which regular people can project their voices and opinions to the masses. In a world where only about half of internet users can do this freely, it is important to recognize the voices that have been silenced. Zimbabweans, with the power of the internet, could be on the brink of political revolution.

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