Lockdown to Shutdown: How COVID-19 Stifled Digital Rights in Zimbabwe

Lockdown to Shutdown: How COVID-19 Stifled Digital Rights in
Zimbabwe 1

Kudzai Chimhangwa

On the morning of July 30, 2020, Zimbabweans awoke to the
presence of heavily armed soldiers standing ready to crush
anti-government protesters
scheduled to take to the streets the
following day. No one was permitted entry into the central business
district. The official line was that protests were prohibited in an
effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

A few days prior, social media —�particularly WhatsApp and
Twitter — was abuzz with citizens sharing Virtual Private Network
(VPN) applications to download, just in case the government

shut down the internet
again, as they did during protests in
January 2019.

COVID-19 and its subsequent government policies have had
far-reaching implications on digital rights and media freedom in

state of disaster
was declared by Zimbabwe on March 20, 2020,
following the World Health Organization’s declaration of COVID-19
as a pandemic. Subsequently, a national lockdown and prohibition of
gatherings were legislated in the form of Statutory Instrument
(SI) 83 of 2020
titled “Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention,
Containment and Treatment) (National Lockdown) Order, 2020.â€

Although the SI predates protests planned for July, authorities
used this particular piece of legislation to clamp down on digital
rights and other civil liberties protected in the constitution.

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Digital rights under siege

Since January 2019, when anti-government demonstrations turned
violent and resulted in
several deaths
after security used excessive force against
protesters, Zimbabwe’s government has been on edge.

The government tightened their
COVID-19 regulations
just as anti-government protest plans
began to circulate online.

The ruse of using COVID-19 as an excuse to clamp down on digital
rights all began on July 20, when media headlines read that a
Zimbabwean journalist who had exposed alleged
government corruption
involving coronavirus medicines supplies
had been charged with inciting public violence.

Journalist Hopewell Chino’ono had reported on a
coronavirus-related fraud case involving a $60 million United
States dollar PPE procurement, which led to the arrest and sacking
of Health Minister Obadiah Moyo.

Hopewell faced charges of inciting public violence after he
allegedly called for an end to corruption before the planned
anti-government protests slated for July 31.

Nick Mangwana, the permanent secretary in the Information
Ministry, said that nobody, including journalists, were above the

There is no profession which
is above the law.
-Journalists are not above the law.
-Lawyers are not above the law
-Doctors and nurses are not above the law.
-Politicians & bankers are not above the law.
Anyone suspected to have commited a crime should be subjected to
due process.

— Nick Mangwana (@nickmangwana)
July 20, 2020

On July 20, Chino’ono was arrested together with Jacob
Ngarivhume, leader of a small opposition party called Transform
Zimbabwe, for allegedly participating in plans for an
anti-government demonstration.

Ngarivhume appeared in court on July 22, facing charges of
planning to incite public violence. Both arrests were tied to
tweets deemed provocative by the state.

They were
with violating Section 187 (1) (a) as read with Section
37 (1) (a) (i) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act,
Chapter 9:23, “incitement to participate in public

On the day of Chino’ono’s arrest, his Twitter handle was
taken down, although it was not clear by whom.

SI 83 had been in effect since May, but President Emmerson
Mnangagwa then declared a
dusk-to-dawn curfew
curtailing people’s movement, purportedly
to stem the spread of COVID-19 infections in the country.

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Activists charge that this move was
clearly aimed
at stopping planned anti-government protests on
July 31. In anticipation, security forces displayed an overwhelming
readiness to quell protests.

Human Rights Watch Southern Africa director Dewa Mavhinga told
Global Voices that the state had, in effect, weaponized the law to
silence dissent:

The Zimbabwe authorities have been using the COVID-19 pandemic
as an excuse to clampdown on the opposition and deny citizens their
rights, particularly crushing the right to peaceful protests even
where those protests comply with COVID-19 regulations.

The arrest and detention of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono is
harassment, it is persecution through prosecution meant to silence
other journalists through fear.

Chin’ono was
for a third time in five months on January 9, for
another controversial tweet.

A closer look at the law

Some experts argue that public health interests supersede
protection of human rights, hence the need for a strong clampdown
by police and the military against citizens who violated lockdown
regulations — not only in Zimbabwe, — but across Africa.

In emailed responses, press officer for European Commission
Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Gesine Knolle said that in
emergency circumstances, international human rights law only allows
states to limit certain human rights if the measures are necessary,
proportionate, limited in time and non-discriminatory.

“We need to pay special attention to the impact that the
crisis has on human rights and, in particular, women and the most
vulnerable people,†she said.

In Zimbabwe, SI 83 under Section 14 prohibits publication or
communication of false news about any public officer, official or
enforcement officer involved with enforcing or implementing the
national lockdown in his or her capacity as such, or about any
private individual that has the effect of prejudicing the state’s
enforcement of the national lockdown.

Those deemed in violation of said regulations
face up to 20 years
in prison.

Rights activist Adolf Mavheneke told Global Voices that the
instrument specifically places a prohibition on communicating
falsehoods on private individuals that has the effect of
prejudicing the state’s enforcement of the national lockdown:

Unfortunately Section 14 of the SI has grossly been
misunderstood to have a blanket effect on media freedom. It is
nowhere near an embargo on the generality of press freedom. …
However, falsehoods are a criminal offense under Section 31 of the
Criminal Law [Codification and Reform] Act [Chapter 9:23] to the
extent that they are prejudicial to the state.

This is because falsehoods have the potential to cause public
disorder and this would consequently undermine public governance in
the state’s efforts to implement a pandemic lockdown.

“Sadly, between SI 83 and Section 31 of the criminal code,
there is no definition of what false statements are and the extent
to which these statements become prejudicial to the state. This
leaves it to interpretation at a court of law,†he said.

Mavheneke pointed out that the government turned to the pandemic
regulations to clamp down on dissent and other fundamental

“The pandemic public health emergency regulations became a
blessing in disguise for a regime tethering on the absence of
effectiveness and legitimacy,†said Mavheneke.

Exceptional precedents

Digital rights activists
that digital technologies are critical during the
pandemic and such technologies must remain independent. The Digital
Freedom Fund, a European-based digital rights litigation group,
points out that authorities continue to make decisions involving
digital technologies without giving due thought to the intricate
and long-term impact on human rights.

“That’s why activists, civil society and the courts must
carefully scrutinize questionable new measures, and make sure that
– even amid a global pandemic – states are complying with
international human rights law,†DFF argues.

On October 12, addressing the ruling party Zanu-PF delegates
(Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front) at the party’s
headquarters in Harare, President Mnangagwa said that the
government had
managed to track the locations
of suspected individuals accused
of attacking the government via social media in relation to the
July 31 protests.

Mnangagwa’s statement signaled a new affront to digital
privacy amid an uptick in surveillance tactics: Around that time,
Army Commander Edzai Chimonyo announced that the military would
soon begin to pry
into the communications of private citizens
in a
counter-subversion bid.

Digital rights in Zimbabwe were already under attack before
COVID-19 hit. But during and after COVID-19 regulations were
implemented, specific laws — existing and new ones in the
COVID-19 era — were effectively used by the state to clamp down
on digital rights under the pretext of enforcing pandemic control
regulations in Zimbabwe.

This article is part of a series of posts examining interference
with digital rights under lockdowns and beyond during the COVID-19
pandemic in nine African countries: Uganda, Zimbabwe, Mozambique,
Algeria, Nigeria, Namibia, Tunisia, Tanzania and Ethiopia. The
project is funded by the Africa Digital Rights Fund of The Collaboration on International ICT Policy
for East and Southern Africa

Top image: A police officer wearing a protective anti-virus mask
talks with a motorist at a checkpoint in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, April
20, 2020. Photo by
KB Mpofu
/ ILO via Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND

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Lockdown to Shutdown: How COVID-19 Stifled Digital Rights in

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