Freedom of Expression and Digital Rights Under Attack
Zimbabwe’s economy continues to tumble down the abyss with a budget deficit of more than USD$1.2 billion, spontaneous price hikes, basic commodity and fuel shortages, jobs crisis, a biting cash crisis amongst a horde of debilitating challenges. The Government blames the economic turmoil on social media misinformation pushing for political change. Whilst social media has always been viewed with suspicion by the Government, it has of late grown to be a pestering concern for the Government as Zimbabwe heads for its 2018 elections. It has become a nagging issue such that it was a worthy subject of discussion during the Zimbabwe - South Africa Bi-National Commission meeting held on 3 October 2017 in South Africa. President Mugabe said; ‘there was abuse, unlimited abuse of our cyber technology by those who wanted to undermine our economy (Financial Gazette, 5-10 October 2017). It indeed has become a very important issue in need of a joint strategy between South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Living in a repressive environment where freedom of expression is systematically and effectively thwarted, social media has grown to be a platform where Zimbabweans vent out their frustrations and disillusionments. On 22 and 23 September 2017, Zimbabwe retailers exponentially increased basic commodity prices, rejected mobile and credit card payments. The exchange rate of USD1 to real time electronic transfers stood at 1:60. This led to panic buying which left some key supermarkets empty and social media was central in circulating the crisis information. The Government blamed social media for fanning panic buying. The then Minister of Home Affairs, Ignatious Chombo, threatened social media users including the press saying “government is closely monitoring the press and social media reports in question with a view to taking decisive action to deal a telling blow to the perpetrators of the crime in terms of the laws of the country’s criminal justice system.” It is against this background that the renowned clergy Pastor Evan Mawarire of #ThisFlag movement was arrested for inciting public violence through a Facebook video bemoaning the economic crisis, fuel shortages and criticising the bond notes on 25 September 2017.
In a thinly veiled attempt at addressing the economic challenges, the President on 9 September 2017, reshuffled his cabinet of ministers. Shocking in his reshuffle was the introduction of a new Ministry on Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation. “This is coming against the background of the abuse that we saw not too far back on social media, where social media caused some excitement,” said the President’s spokesperson. He further said “the Ministry is a protective portfolio aimed at protecting the nation from cyber threats posed by the abuse of social media.” It is a high security brief given the gravity of the threat posed by social media abuse, he further emphasised. He went on to say that Zimbabwe will learn from rogue regimes like China, Russia and Koreans who have been successful in using repressive tools to curtail people’s freedoms.