Mnangagwa regime blocks Internet access to conceal Zimbabwe security forces’ extrajudicial killings, “systematic torture”

Photo credit: Martin Krolikowski / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

By Obert Madondo | @Obiemad | Jan 24, 2019

Last week, Zimbabwe security forces fatally shot at least twelve unarmed people and wounded hundreds during nationwide protests against President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s decision to hike the price of fuel by 150%. The extra-judicial killings mirrored the state-sponsored violence that followed Zimbabwe’s first elections without Robert Mugabe on the ballot, held in July 2018. Then members of the Zimbabwe Defense Forces shot and killed seven unarmed people in Harare, the capital, during protests against alleged election rigging.

The government responded to last week’s protests by imposing a complete blockade on the Internet and key social media services such as Facebook and WhatsApp. The unprecedented blockade deliberately sought to conceal the security forces’ extrajudicial killings and organized “systematic torture” in response to the protests. It deliberately sought to scuttle Zimbabweans’ ability to broadcast these egregious human rights violations to the rest of the world.

Mnangagwa, who served Mugabe for over 50 years, initially grabbed power in November 2017 through a military coup that toppled the fallen dictator after nearly 37 years of bloodstained rule. He won a July 2018 presidential election tainted by widespread vote intimidation, allegations of election fraud, and the security forces’ extra-judicial killing of unarmed protesters.

Digital authoritarianism

The government’s Internet blockade confirms that, under Mnangagwa, Zimbabwe is trapped in a burgeoning digital authoritarianism.

Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, Canada, explained the growing menace of digital authoritarianism in the article, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” published by Journal of Democracy in 2015. According to the article, “far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage” through “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.”

The Mnangagwa regime issued three Internet-busting directives in a period of three days. On Tuesday, Jan. 15, the second day of the protests, all major Internet service providers (ISPs) blocked access to the Internet, social media sites such as Facebook, and popular communication apps such as WhatsApp. Econet Wireless, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile network service provider, reportedly stated it had complied with “a written warrant issued by the Minister of State in the office of the President and Cabinet” who is responsible for national security. The minister, Owen Ncube, is a staunch Mnangagwa ally.

“Zimbabwe lifted the two-day blockade of the internet on Wednesday evening but mobile operator Econet and State-owned TelOne said they had been ordered by government to keep media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter blocked, leading to accusations that it wanted to prevent images of its brutal crackdown on protesters from being broadcast around the world,” reported NewsDay, Zimbabwe’s largest independent daily. The publication further reported that Ncube imposed another complete Internet blackout, “until further notice,” on Thursday, Jan. 16., “amid fears that the move was aimed at camouflaging gross human rights violations”.

The directives were issued under the 2007 Interception of Communications Act (ICA), a draconian legislation directly administered by the president.

Econet Wireless confirmed that its lawyers had advised the company to comply the Mnangagwa regime’s “directive for a total shutdown of the Internet until further notice”. The company apologized “for all inconveniences caused by the acts of government, which are beyond our reasonable control”. In a statement to subscribers, the company stated:

Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security through the Director-General of the President’s Department acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, internet services are currently suspended across all networks and internet service providers. We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control.

The ICA compels telecom companies and ISPs to participate in the government’s surveillance project. Under the Act, ISPs must “provide a telecommunications service which has the capacity to be intercepted”. They’re required to provide services “capable of rendering real time and full time monitoring facilities for the interception of communications” by the government. Telecom companies and ISPs who fail to advance the Mnangagwa regime’s surveillance agenda “shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level twelve or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.”

The government is also heavily invested in Zimbabwe’s fledgling information and communications technology (ICT) market. It owns ZARNet, one of Zimbabwe’s dozen licensed ISPs. Two of the country’s five international internet gateways, NetOne and the fixed network TelOne, are state-owned. The other two, Africom and Econet, are privately owned. The fifth, TeleCel, is partially owned by the government.

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulator, are appointed by the president. In the aftermath of the mid-2016 #ThisFlag and youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile protests, POTRAZ revealed the extend of the government’s grip on the ICT sector. The regulator stated that it, “together with all the telecommunications service providers in Zimbabwe have noted with concern, the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services made through our infrastructure and communication platforms over the past few days… All sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified.”

Most Zimbabweans access the Internet through mobile data.

Zimbabwe constitution

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum has stated that the Mnangagwa regime’s Internet blockade was “drastic and disproportionate and violates sections 61and 62 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of the media and access to information”. The blockade is a gross violation of Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution (pdf), which also guarantees freedom of assembly:

  • Section 57 states that “every person has the right to privacy,” including the right not to have “the privacy of their communications infringed”.
  • Section 61 upholds the “right to freedom of expression,” including the “freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information”.
  • Section 62 states that every person “has the right to any information” necessary for “the exercise or protection of a right”.

“Blanket, open-ended shutdowns of the internet violate the right to freely seek, receive, and impart information,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement.

On Monday, Jan 21, the High Court of Zimbabwe set aside the government’s directives when it ruled in a challenged brought forward by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and MISA Zimbabwe, the local chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).

“High Court judge Justice Owen Tagu on 21 January 2019 ruled that the Minister of State in the President’s Office Responsible for National Security does not have the authority to issue any directives in terms of the Interception of Communications Act,” said MISA Zimbabwe in a statement. “This means that the directives issued by Minister Owen Ncube to shut down the Internet in Zimbabwe are illegal and therefore, without effect.”

In their application (pdf), the two organizations had cited the state security minister, the Director General of Intelligence Services, Mnangagwa, Econet Wireless, NetOne Cellular, Telecel Zimbabwe, and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), as respondents. They had argued that the government’s blockade was “drastic and disproportionate,” and that “fundamental rights and freedoms of innocent people have needlessly been violated”.

Human rights violations

Local and international human rights organizations have condemned the Mnangagwa regime’s Internet blockade, arguing that it deliberately sought to conceal the securities forces’ atrocities. In a statement, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum labeled the blockade “a tool of repression meant to mask the massive human rights violations which the state was preparing to commit.” The coalition added:

The Forum notes with concern that it was during this blockage there was an escalation of the violations which still continue undetected…

It has noted with concern the massive human rights violations resulting in loss of life and destruction of property.

The Forum through its membership, has recorded at least 844 human rights violations during the shutdown. Consolidated statistics so far reveals the following violations: killings (at least 12); injuries from gunshots (at least 78), assault, torture, inhumane and degrading treatment including dog bites (at least 242), destruction of property including vandalism and looting (at least 46), arbitrary arrests and detentions (466), displacements (under verification). Other violations are invasion of privacy, obstruction of movement, media freedoms and access to information.”

About 700 people, including opposition MPs, labour leaders, rights defenders, and activists, were arrested during the protests. A scathing report by the government-appointed Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) confirmed independent claims by human rights groups that the military and police tortured and killed suspects. The commission monitored the security forces’ activities between Jan. 16 and Jan. 21. It’s report found that “armed and uniformed members of the Zimbabwe National Army and the Zimbabwe Republic Police” used organized “systematic torture” against suspects as young as 11. Furthermore, the torture “was organized in that they targeted men who stay near areas where barricades had been placed and near areas that were torched by protestors or looted.” The report found that large numbers of “accused persons” had been held by the police “for periods exceeding 48 hours and that juveniles were being mixed with adults in holding cells against international human rights law and standards.”

According to the report:

The deployment of the army in quelling civilian disturbances leads to loss of life and serious bodily injuries and other human rights violations, yet the government continues to make such deployments.

Under Section 208 of the constitution, security services and their members must not “violate the fundamental rights or freedoms of any person”. Even the regime’s favourite instrument for violating Zimbabweans’ right to freedom of assembly, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), dictates that the degree of force the security forces use to disperse gatherings deemed illegal “shall not be greater than is necessary for dispersing the persons gathered and shall be proportionate to the circumstances of the case and the object to be attained”.

Human rights organizations also noted the destruction of property by protesters. A soldier, police officer, and members of both Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF party and the opposition were implicated.

According to Human Rights Watch:

Government security forces responded with live ammunition, rubber bullets, and teargas, which they fired at the protesters and into people’s homes… The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights reported that uniformed members of the police and army carried out apparently indiscriminate door-to-door raids in some Harare suburbs on January 14, forcibly entering homes by breaking doors and windows. The authorities then proceeded to assault some occupants and, in some instances, forced residents out of their homes…

Doctors from the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights told Human Rights Watch that shutting down the internet had disrupted their efforts to coordinate much-needed medical assistance for victims of police shootings.

According Veritas, a Zimbabwe constitution watchdog, Section 208 of the Constitution, Section 29 of the Public Order and Security Act, and Section 42 of the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act, make it clear that “excessive force is illegal”:

Police officers and soldiers [if properly authorised] can use force to quell public disturbances, but the force must be reasonable and proportionate in the circumstances and must not extend to killing people. This is so even if the disturbances they are faced with are violent and extensive – and the recent stay-away was marred by deplorable violence. Whatever the provocation, the authorities’ response must be moderate, reasonable and proportionate. And killing is illegal whatever the circumstances.

Veritas adds: “Whatever violence is used, and whatever the provocation, people must not be killed. The right to life is sacrosanct and cannot be taken away except by a court when it sentences a criminal to death [section 86(3)(a) of the Constitution].”

International law

The Mnangagwa regime’s Internet blockade violated international law. In 2011, Frank La Rue, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, declared access to the Internet a human right. In a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council, La Rue stated:

Unlike any other medium, the Internet enables individuals to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds instantaneously and inexpensively across national borders. By vastly expanding the capacity of individuals to enjoy their right to freedom of opinion and expression, which is an “enabler” of other human rights, the Internet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole.

… The Special Rapporteur considers cutting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, to be disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights…

The former UN Special Rapporteur called on governments to “ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.”

In a July 2018 resolution (pdf), the United Nations Human Rights Council affirmed that “the same rights people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression, which is applicable regardless of frontiers and through any media of one’s choice, in accordance with articles 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”. The resolution condemned “unequivocally measures in violation of international human rights law that prevent or disrupt an individual’s ability to seek, receive or impart information online”. It called upon all governments to “ensure that all domestic laws, policies and practices are consistent with their international human rights obligations with regard to freedom of opinion and expression online”.

Digital activism

A paper published by the European Centre for Political Economy in 2011, entitled, “Digital Authoritarianism: Human Rights, Geopolitics and Commerce,” stated that “authoritarian regimes have been remarkably successful at adapting to the perceived dangers posed to their political authority by the Internet”.

Ultimately, Mnangagwa’s Internet blockade sought to cripple Zimbabweans’ ability to use the Internet to coordinate protest actions and share security services’ brutality with the rest of the world. In recent years, Zimbabwean political activists and rights defenders have increasingly harnessed the power of the Internet, digital activism, social media, and Internet-enabled mobile phones, to plan and coordinate game-changing collective democratic actions.

In April 2016, prominent democracy activist Pastor Evan Mawarire’s #ThisFlag video lament triggered a social media movement highlighting Zimbabwe’s continuing economic meltdown under Mugabe. Internet-enabled mobile phones and popular communication app such as WhatsApp were central to the youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile grassroots movement’s mid-2016 protests. Mawarire is one of the more than 700 people arrested during last week’s protests. He’s being held at the notorious Harare Remand Prison. Mawarire’s crime? Using Facebook to urge Zimbabweans to heed the protests. His trumped-up charges include “subverting a constitutionally-elected government”.

Eclipsing Mugabe

More than a year after Mugabe’s forced departure, Mnangagwa’s apologists continue to insult Zimbabweans by repeatedly blaming the fallen dictator for the new president’s human rights atrocities. For example, the Western media often frames the Mnangagwa’s regime’s brutality in terms of the “spectre” of the Mugabe era. Last week’s government crackdown is “reminiscent of the Mugabe era,” according to the Guardian (UK). To be clear, Mugabe is to blame for the atrocities committed during Zimbabwe’s first 37 years after the defeat of white supremacist Rhodesia. But now Robert Mugabe is gone, gone, gone.

A confirmed key architect of some of the numerous state-sponsored atrocities of the Mugabe era, Mnangagwa earned his fear-inducing nickname, “The Crocodile”. He used “to bide his time before suddenly crunching Mr Mugabe’s enemies“. As national security minister between 1980 and 1988, he oversaw the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Zimbabwe’s dreaded secret police. Mnangagwa is implicated in the Zimbabwean state’s 1980s Gukurahundi massacre of 20,000 members of the Ndebele-speaking minority in the Matabeleland and Midlands provinces.

Mnangagwa is the walking personification of the Zimbabwe state’s brutal crackdown on the opposition and rights defenders since Mugabe’s departure. The post-2018 election extra-judicial killings were committed under Mnangagwa’s watch. Last week’s extra-judicial killings were executed by the Mnangagwa’s regime.

In fact, the Mnangagwa regime’s Internet blockade makes Mugabe look like a saint. In a period of three days, the regime, which has promised a break with the past, issued three directives blockading Zimbabweans’ access to the Internet and key social media services. How does that compare with the digital authoritarianism of the Mugabe era?

According to Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report (pdf):

No websites were blocked or filtered in Zimbabwe during the coverage period. Access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and international blog-hosting platforms are all freely available…

In Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom in the World Report, Zimbabwe’s “net freedom” status is “partly free”. Furthermore:

Internet access and usage have expanded rapidly in recent years despite frequent power outages, and access is rarely blocked or filtered, allowing online news sources to gain popularity.

The Mugabe regime’s Internet blockade in response to the #ThisFlag and youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile protests of 2016 made global headlines. The regime blocked access to WhatsApp for only “nearly five hours, which activists believe was a deliberate effort to curtail the dissemination of protest messages about bad governance in Zimbabwe,” according to Freedom House’s 2017 Freedom on the Net report.

Aside from the brief block on WhatsApp, no websites were reported blocked or filtered in Zimbabwe and access to social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube and international blog-hosting platforms were all freely available during this report’s coverage period.

Then, according to Freedom House, Zimbabwe’s freedom on the Net status “declined from Partly Free to Not Free due to the process by which elected president Robert Mugabe was compelled to resign in November under pressure from the military”. The organization’s 2018 Freedom on the Net report, which covered the period June 1, 2017, to May 31, 2018, recorded no blockades to the Internet and social media apps. But the report noted two disturbing developments relating to Zimbabweans’ Internet-based rights and freedoms in the post-Mugabe era.

First, the Mugabe-era Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill, which will severely curtail Zimbabweans’ freedom of expression on the Internet once it becomes law, “gained momentum in 2018”. The Mnangagwa regime is currently transforming the bill into a draconian information control weapon against the open Internet, democracy, human rights, free flow of information, and privacy rights. Last year, the regime announced that the cybersecurity bill will now incorporate two more draconian Mugabe-era draft laws, the Data Protection Bill, and the Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commerce Bill. The merger will create one monstrous cybersecurity omnibus bill that will inflict a terrible blow on Zimbabweans’ constitutionally-protected digital rights.

“Grouping fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, access to information with consumer rights and cyber security into one piece of legislation, has the potential of undermining the protection of those rights,” said MISA Zimbabwe in a statement.

Once Mnangagwa’s draconian cybersecurity bill becomes law, it will join a growing list of draconian laws that allow the state to blatantly violate Zimbabweans’ rights and freedoms. These include the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) (2002), and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, and the Interception of Communications Act, the law used to justify last week’s Internet blockade.

Second, in March 2018, the Mnangagwa regime launched Zimbabwe’s National Policy for Information and Communications Technology, which “includes a plan to centralize control over the country’s internet backbone”. As reported by the Zimbabwe Independent before Mugabe’s forced departure:

The policy proposed amongst other things establishment of a quasi-government entity to monitor internet traffic. It states that all internet gateways and infrastructure will be controlled by a single company, while a National Data Centre “to support both public and high security services and information” will be set up.

The data centre will also allow government “to centralise information storage, management and protection”. The policy, alongside the Data Protection Bill, Computer and Cybercrime Bill, which will allow government to install a remote forensic tool (spying tool) onto citizens’ communication devices such as phones, will enable government to effectively spy on citizens.

Freeom House’s 2019 Freedom in the Net report will not ignore Zimbabwe’s unprecedented January 2019 Internet blockade. It’ll certainly not ignore Mnangagwa’s burgeoning digital authoritarianism, at the centre of which are draconian laws such as the Zimbabwe’s future cybercrime law.

Draconian laws

Mugabe created Zimbabwe’s all-seeing surveillance state. In 2016, POTRAZ, the telecomms regulator, claimed that Zimbabwe’s Internet-savvy freedom fighters “can easily be identified”. The Mnangagwa regime’s Internet blockade was issued under the Mugabe-era Interception of Communications Act which, according to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom on the Net report, “established a Monitoring of Interception of Communications Center that has the power to oversee traffic in all telecommunications services and to intercept phone calls, emails, and faxes under the pretext of national security”. The ICA also boosted the surveillance powers of the military, Zimbabwe Republic Police, and Central Intelligence Organization. It even granted ministries and agencies such as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority new surveillance powers.

Furthermore, the Mugabe era created a political and military elite hostile to Internet and digital rights. Government, Zanu PF and military officials often claimed that Zimbabweans using social media platforms such as WhatsApp to express themselves or coordinate protest actions were “abusing” these platforms.

Mugabe’s forced departure presented Mnangagwa with a golden opportunity to distinguish himself from the fallen dictator. Instead, while promising a new post-Mugabe Zimbabwe, Mnangagwa embraced his mentor’s digital authoritarianism. He’s so far made no effort to reform the security sector. He’s given no guarantees that security forces will be accountable while in the processes of tackling cybercrime or public protests.

Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019 notes that Zimbabwean authorities have “continued to ignore human rights provisions in the country’s 2013 constitution. The government did not enact new laws or amend existing legislation to bring them in line with the constitution and Zimbabwe’s international and regional human rights obligations.”

A violent regime that has so far failed to deliver on its promise to revive the economy and uphold Zimbabweans’ rights and freedoms holds power in Zimbabwe today. In December, the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (Zimstat) revealed a year-on-year inflation rate of 42,09%, the highest in a decade. As the economic crisis deepens, expect more state-sponsored extra-judicial killings and systematic torture. Expect the Mnangagwa regime to take away Zimbabweans’ Internet and digital freedoms in the name of maintaining law and order.

[Edited]

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 ProgressiveZimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad

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