December 29, 2017

Repressing the Message and Method: Zimbabwean Efforts to Enact Digital Control



The fall of Robert Mugabe in late November is likely to usher in a new era of free digital expression in Zimbabwe. In the wake of his ascent, the now-fallen president initiated an era of repression, as evidenced by Freedom House’s 2017 ranking of Zimbabwean political freedom at 32 out of 100.

Most of the international community expressed concern about the deteriorating, and at times brutal, human rights conditions. Mugabe’s authoritarian grip also extended to the digital space through a series of unconventional measures aimed at eliminating the ability of opponents to use direct messaging applications to criticize the regime. The constriction on direct communication methods reflects the unique tendency for digital repression in African states to focus on mobile phones, given that many depend on such devices for digital access.

The goal was to silence the online activities of Zimbabwean journalists, human rights defenders, and pro-democracy activists. What is unique for Zimbabwe is that there was less concern regarding controlling social media—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other blog-hosting platforms remained accessible while government-sponsored information communications technologies (ICT) repression zeroed in on direct messaging applications.

Since 2013, bulk text messages with political content had been subject to censorship, restricting the ability of civil society groups to communicate with one another. In October 2015, an opposition party councilor in a rural province was arrested for allegedly demeaning President Mugabe in a WhatsApp message to a private chat group with other regional councilors. WhatsApp was also shut down for five hours on July 6, 2016 during anti-government protests. As a result, a culture of self-censorship emerged.

A 2016 survey by Afrobarometer on perceptions of citizen engagement with leaders showed that 86 percent of respondents indicated they do not engage with leaders out of fear of violent reprisals, despite the finding that 75 percent of respondents believed engagement was important.

That was the case until #ThisFlag, an unplanned social media campaign, went viral in April 2016. Evan Mawarire, a pastor, posted a video on Facebook that inspired Zimbabweans at home and in the diaspora to post videos of themselves draped in the national flag and calling for government reforms to address the numerous serious issues facing the country. Significantly, it also sparked offline actions, including a public debate and protests.

Shortly afterward, Mugabe’s government proposed a new “cybercrime” bill that took a rather unconventional approach to the problem: the bill allowed the government to install a forensic tool on its citizens’ devices to monitor use of the Internet. Other troubling aspects included the prospect of jailing Zimbabweans who “abused” social media for up to 10 years. Foreign-based Zimbabweans “who cause harm back home” using social media or any other computer-based system could be extradited and prosecuted. As of October 2017, the bill had yet to receive a vote in the country’s parliament.

Mugabe also was set on establishing a new Ministry for Cybersecurity in 2017, a plan widely criticized. A government representative explained that the Ministry’s mission would have focused on eliminating “abuse and unlawful conduct” in cyberspace like “a trap used to catch rats.”

For Zimbabwe, Internet penetration rates have been rising steadily, including over the last several weeks. Since the state still owns the country’s digital and telecommunications infrastructure, there is a risk of backsliding to Mugabe-era restrictions on digital freedom. On a more positive note, however, the new president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, has collapsed the cyber security ministry established by Mugabe and placed it under the control of the ICT Minister.

As the year comes to a close, it’s worth a reminder that digital freedoms are in need of constant and vigilant defense. Zimbabwe is only slightly unique in its targeting of direct messaging applications. Even Western states such as the United States and the U.K. have called for backdoors in digital messaging apps under the rationale of fighting terrorism.

Preventing the encroachment of digital freedoms is a global project in need of context and perspective. The scale between repression in the West and repression in the Zimbabwe is not all that extreme. The lessons of Zimbabwe should serve as a warning about the fragility of digital freedoms as we move into 2018.