“These social media streets ain’t safe anymore.”
In President Emmerson Mnangaga’s post-Robert Mugabe Zimbabwe, a Twitter user can land in real serious trouble for parodying powerful figures aligned with the ruling Zanu PF party on social media. The Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) recently charged Shadaya Tawona with “criminal insult” for retweeting a tweet that allegedly “damaged the personality” of Priscilla Chigumba, the powerful chairperson of the notorious Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC).
Section 61 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution upholds the “right to freedom of expression”, including the “freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information”. Section 57 states that “every person has the right to privacy”, including the right not to have “the privacy of their communications infringed”.
The chilling effect of the charges against Tawona is unmistakable. For example Tawona says: “Watch what you say. I think I’m even going to be deactivating some of my social media accounts, I don’t feel safe anymore…”
Below is the full text of Tawona’s personal account:
Today I was called by the ZRP (CID department) to report to their offices on charges CRIMINAL INSULT. Apparently the charges were pressed by Mrs Priscilla Chigumba, according to the information I got from the police.
I spent the entire day at Morris Depot being interrogated with regards to this matter. The accusation is that I retweeted a tweet which sought to damage her personality. The tweet was from a parody account pretending to be Mrs Chigumba.
It’s alleged that my intention for retweeting was to not only tarnish her image but incite people. Fellow #twimbos watch what you tweet or retweet, they’re people who monitor these social media sites. You will unknowingly find yourself in trouble.
I was released on conditions that I’ll not leave the country & will have to report to the police at their request. The matter is said to go into court anytime, as I’m tweeting right now I don’t even know how long I’ll be a free man.
I’m not rich or powerful, I can’t afford lawyers, so it basically the matter is out of my hands, all I can do is leave it up to God. But #twimbos you’ve been warned, these social media streets ain’t safe anymore. Watch what you say.
I think I’m even going to be deactivating some of my social media accounts, I don’t feel safe anymore, I don’t know if the memes I put will be used against me by someone else. Watch yourself #twimbos
Chigumba’s military-dominated ZEC hogged the limelight after its questionable handling of Zimbabwe’s first harmonized elections without Mugabe on the ballot, held July 30th, 2018. ZEC declared Mnangagwa, who initially grabbed power from his mentor, Mugabe, through a military coup last November, the winner of the presidential contest. ZEC’s contested results showed Mnangagwa narrowly defeating Nelson Chamisa, the opposition MDC Alliance candidate. Chamisa challenged the results in Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court, arguing that ZEC had rigged the election in Mnangagwa’s favour. The ConCourt upheld Mnangagwa’s election.
Tawona is not the first Zimbabwean to be targeted by the new government’s policing agencies for self expression on social media.
“Evil and devilish deeds”
In August, police in Harare charged Munyaradzi Shoko, a well-known Mnangagwa critic, with “criminal nuisance” after he’d stated in a Facebook post that the president’s name was “generally associated with evil and devilish deeds”.
Mnangagwa, who served Mugabe for more than 50 years, earned his fear-inducing nickname, “The Crocodile”. He’s one of the key architects of the numerous state-sponsored atrocities of the Mugabe era. He’s implicated in the Zimbabwean state’s 1980s Gukurahundi massacre of 20,000 members of the Ndebele-speaking minority in the Southern African country’s Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.
As national security minister between 1980 and 1988, Mnangagwa oversaw the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Zimbabwe’s dreaded secret police. The new president used “to bide his time before suddenly crunching Mr Mugabe’s enemies“.
The new government’s post-2018 election campaign of terror against the opposition further confirms the “evil and devilish deeds” associated with Mnangagwa’s name.
ZEC withheld the results of the presidential contest, which pitted Mnangagwa, Chamisa, and 21 other candidates. In Harare, anxious opposition supporters justifiably protested the delay. The Zimbabwe Defense Forces (ZDF) moved in and gunned down seven people. Mnangagwa is the commander-in-chief of the ZDF.
Then, after the announcement of the results of the presidential vote, the military and Zanu PF thugs engaged in a terror campaign aimed at permanently silencing the opposition. Soldiers reportedly attached MDC Alliance leaders, polling agents, and supporters in the opposition strongholds of Harare and the nearby satellite city of Chitungwiza.
On Aug. 4, 2018, the Guardian (UK) reported:
Soldiers moved through suburbs of Harare, the capital, and satellite cities on Friday night and early on Saturday morning, beating supporters of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), firing weapons outside the homes of its MPs and sealing off the homes of leaders’ families.
The state-sponsored post-election campaign of terror forced dozens of opposition leaders, polling agents, and ordinary supporters into hiding across the country.
The Mnangagwa regime’s persecution of opposition supporters and ordinary social media users is likely to continue. Mnangagwa embraced his predecessor’s digital authoritarianism.
Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, in Toronto, Canada, discussed digital authoritarianism in the article, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege“, published by the Journal of Democracy in 2015. According to Deibert’s paper:
Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage… Moreover, authoritarians have developed an arsenal that extends from technical measures, laws, policies, and regulations, to more covert and offensive techniques, such as targeted malware attacks and campaigns to coopt social media.
Before being expelled from the ruling Zanu PF party in 2014, Mugabe’s former Security Minister, Didymus Mutasa, reportedly said:
No one can hide from us in this country.
As I blogged earlier, the Mnangagwa regime is in the process of transforming the Mugabe-era Cybersecurity and Cybercrimes bill into a draconian information control weapon against the open Internet, democracy, human rights, free flow of information, and privacy rights protected by Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. Section 57 states that “every person has the right to privacy”, including the right not to have “the privacy of their communications infringed”.
Once Mnangagwa’s proposed cybersecurity bill becomes law, it will join a growing list of draconian information control laws. These include the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) (2002), and the Interception of Communications Act (ICA) of 2007. The ICA boosted the surveillance powers of the military, CIO, ZRP, and Zimbabwe Revenue Authority.
In 2016, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulator, confirmed that Zimbabwe’s growing army of Internet-savvy freedom fighters “can easily be identified” by the all-seeing surveillance state. According to the agency:
All sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified.
Most Zimbabweans access the Internet via mobile phones. The ICA also co-opted Zimbabwe’s telecom companies and Internet service providers (ISPs) into the government’s surveillance project. Under the ICA, ISPs must “provide a telecommunications service which has the capacity to be intercepted.”
This article is part of The Zimbabwean Progressive‘s “Zimbabwe Surveillance Self-Defense” initiative, whose main pre-occupation is in-depth, comparative and evidence-based independent journalism on Zimbabwe’s ever-evolving surveillance and digital authoritarianism. The initiative unmasks Zimbabwe’s key surveillance organizations, practices and information control laws. It brings safe communication technologies, strategies and practices to the doorsteps of Zimbabwean activists, rights defenders, journalists/bloggers, and ordinary Zimbabweans who wish to defend themselves and their families, friends and communities against government surveillance.
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian Progressive, Zimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad
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