Under the convenient cover of a well-orchestrated internet blackout, the authorities in Zimbabwe have committed atrocious human rights violations.
Candid Comment: Brezhnev Malaba
Are they aware that the switching off of the internet is a serious violation of international human rights law?
In June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet. It is impermissible under international human rights law to — even in times of conflict — for governments to cut off internet connectivity.
The underlying principle is that the internet is essential to the exercise of human rights — and is therefore a fundamental right. You do not need to be an opposition malcontent to realise that the government, in cutting off connectivity, has dismally failed the internationally respected “three-part test” which emphasises the importance of legality, proportionality and necessity. Resorting to an internet kill switch was not only illegal but also disproportionate and unnecessary.
If we take civil liberties seriously, it is vital to carefully scrutinise the manner in which the government actually went about cutting off internet connectivity to millions of Zimbabweans on Tuesday this week.
After failing the whole day to go online, I received an SMS from Econet at 11:49pm. My suspicions were confirmed: the authorities had gone for the kill switch. In was the second time since 2016 for the government to resort to such desperation — the first incident coming at the height of Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag campaign which rattled Robert Mugabe’s government to the core.
“Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security through the Director General of the President’s Dept, acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, Internet Services are currently suspended across all networks and Internet Service providers. We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control. All inconveniences are sincerely regretted,” announced the mobile network operator.
But what type of “warrant” is this one which subjects an entire population to collective punishment? What “crime” has been committed in the first place?
From about 10am on Tuesday to exactly 4:52pm on Wednesday, Zimbabwe was cut off from the world. Over-the-top social media services, namely WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, remained disconnected, with the mobile network operators announcing, once again, that the matter was beyond their control.
It appears those who call the shots in Zimbabwe’s corridors of power are not alive to the devastating consequences of such internet blackouts.
The matter goes beyond commercial loss. Such irresponsible actions grossly undermine constitutional rights and militate against President Mnangagwa’s ongoing efforts to re-engage the international community. When a government deploys the military and cuts off internet connectivity in response to social unrest, it is playing its last card.
What happens when the last card fails?