NIGEL Mugamu, entrepreneur and director of 263Chat Zimbabwe, an online news agency, was left counting his losses after government blacked out the internet in the wake of deadly uprisings which rocked the country last week.
Being an exclusively internet-based publication, 263Chat operations ground to a halt and the company suffered substantial revenue loss and the influence that comes with it while its readers were denied access to the information it gives.
“We were almost in shutdown mode,” he told the Zimbabwe Independent this week. “263Chat has a large and growing audience and, as such, there is a lot of interaction and discussion via our platforms, but because of the shutdown we could not communicate like we normally do with our community both local and in the diaspora.”
“We didn’t expect that the government would shut down the internet so we never had a back-up plan to cushion us in such situations,” he said.
As the state security dragnet moved swiftly to clamp down on dissent, tensions boiled over after government announced a fuel price increase and Zimbabwe joined the inglorious club of countries such as North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, China and Syria which have heavily censored the internet.
For close to a week, the Zimbabwean government froze the internet in a move which not only restricted online-based businesses, but violated fundamental, constitutionally protected basic human rights — freedom of expression and access to information.
The blackout meant that it was impossible for Zimbabweans to access and share information online.
In making the drastic decision, which the High Court reversed on Monday, government argued that it wanted to prevent the mobilisation of protesters and rioters, who went on the rampage on Monday and Tuesday last week. It stated that the internet-based social networks such as Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube were the main platforms through which the mobilisation was happening and therefore to effectively deal with such, the country had to be cut off from the rest of the world.
However, critics contend that the blackout was motivated by a desire by government to carry out its brutal suppression of the uprisings, often characterised by savage beatings and heartless killings under the convenient cover of an internet blackout. Without the internet, it was impossible for social media users to show the world the gory images and videos of the brutality of Zimbabwe’s police and the military.
The blackout also prevented the generality of Zimbabweans at home and abroad from accessing information, not only related to the civil unrest. Even the online versions of the conventional newspapers were also affected and had to rely on the print copies.
This meant the citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information were denied by the very government which is supposed to be the custodian of the constitution.
State Security minister Owen Ncube —who was ruled offside by the High Court on Monday — sought to justify his actions, saying the social networks were being exploited by “enemies of the state who use social media to try to subvert the constitutionally elected government”.
The protesters may have overstepped their constitutional boundaries when, in the process of exercising their rights, turned violent, looting stops, but the government, for its part, used disproportionate force and, in so doing, violated the constitution in no small way.
These rights specified under sections 58, 59, 60, 61 and 62: the right to demonstrate and petition, freedom of assembly and association, freedom of expression and the right to access to information, are qualified rights, which means they cannot be enjoyed without limitation.
Likewise, while the government could have been attempting to stop the peddling of hate language and violence via social media, it ended up switching off internet connectivity to every citizen, including those not involved in any form of violence or protests. The rights of these internet users were grossly violated.
“It is all about controlling the free flow of information and making it difficult for cyber-movements to recruit beyond their physical spaces. It however casts their self-proclaimed democratic credentials in doubt in light of the ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ mantra,” University of Namibia lecturer and social scientist Admire Mare said.
“It has been shown through research that internet shutdown may end up politicising people who are politically apathetic and disinterested who all of a sudden find their lives complicated by the absence of the internet. The consequences are even more for a country like Zimbabwe where people rely on internet for mobile transactions,” he added.
Nigeria-based strategic communications expert Adewunwi Emoruwa, who works for leading public affairs organisation Gatefield, said: “Shutting down the internet itself is a security and socio-economic risk. African governments need to be more transparent and embrace public scrutiny and participation.
Protests are civil rights and the only way in which governments should handle protests or legitimate agitations is through dialogue.”
Government’s internet blackout has also failed the legality test.
The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, in conjunction with the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Zimbabwe chapter), approached the High Court seeking an order revoking the warrant of interception that was issued to network operators by government.
High Court judge Owen Tagu on January 22 ruled that government had no authority to give orders of that nature and ordered reconnection of full internet access to users. However, the court did not pronounce itself on the constitutionality of such executive orders.
Zimbabwe is not the first country in Africa to black out the internet when faced with dissension.
Cameroon’s internet shutdown in 2017, which was considered Africa’s longest internet shutdown lasting 94 days, did not only deprive the citizens of their fundamental rights and freedoms but also crippled economic activities in the nation, costing the Central African state US$45 million.
The shutdown was part of President Paul Biya’s clampdown on a civil unrest by Cameroon’s Anglophone regions protesting against imposition of the French language, spoken by the majority of the country.
Other African states which have played a part in this game are Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt and Sierra Leone,
Emerging as mere platforms of communication and later developing into a formidable component of the global economy, the internet’s role in socialisation, economic and political progression has tremendously grown over the past decade.