Lockdown to shutdown: How COVID-19 stifled digital rights in Zimbabwe

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 2.0.

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 Zimbabwe.

A 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.”

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.

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 law.

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 charged 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 violence.”

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.

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 arrested 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 freedoms.

“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 charge 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 (CIPESA).

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