2023 General Elections: Zimbabwe must not shut down the Internet

Zimbabwe may suffer an internet shutdown in the 2023 general election, just like Uganda and Zambia in 2021. In 2019, Freedom House rated Zimbabwe as a ‘not free’ country with a 28 percent Global Freedom score after the Mnangagwa-led administration shut down the internet for over a week. 

The deputy information minister, Energy Mutodi, stated that the court’s ruling, which ended the shutdown amidst the January protest, was not in defense of the plaintiff’s constitutional rights and that the internet shutdown was not illegal. The government’s stand depicts an administration willing to trample on citizens’ rights without remorse. 

Civil society organizations should teach citizens how to use digital technology to counter any possible internet restrictions. Also, internet censorship tech-producing organizations should state caveats for any attempts to impede citizens’ online freedom. The caveats should not just be for Zimbabwe alone, but for other countries that may try to restrict access in future.

The Mnangagwa-led administration should protect freedom of expression and constructive criticism. Only through this can Zimbabwe be open for business as the president desires.

Under the pretext of tackling money laundering and financial terrorism by non-state actors, the Private Voluntary Organization amendment (PVO) bill passed its second reading in 2022. The bill will empower the government to regulate non-state actors that carry out criminal activities under the guise of charity, according to the justice and parliamentary affairs minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi. 

But analysis revealed that the bill, in hindsight, will obstruct civil organizations from checkmating any political activities. If implemented, non-state actors become powerless on any subsequent policy that may not favor the citizens. This recent move heightens fear of a shutdown at the coming election.

Efforts to sensitize citizens to use digital tools like virtual private networks (VPNs) are reasonable countermeasures. The Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) tweeted guides on using VPNs in January 2019 and promptly responded to inquiries. The sensitization increased VPN-related searches in Zimbabwe by 1,500 percent in 2019, according to the UK-based BestVPN.com. Before the next Zimbabwe election, civil society organizations should collectively increase orientation on how to use shutdown-circumvention apps. 

Other digital tools that can preserve recorded footage for documentation should also be encouraged. Tools like ‘ProofMode’ and ‘eyeWitness to Atrocities’ provide footage’s metadata and authenticated technical information that helps human rights activists monitor and report violations. Such tools become helpful in cases of an unlawful clampdown. For instance, Ukraine reported more than 20,000 human rights violations from Russia during the ongoing war to the UN with ‘eyeWitness to Atrocities.’

The African Union should also condemn recent internet shutdown trends in Africa. In 2021, Nigeria lost more than $1.1 billion after banning Twitter for 222 days. This loss did not deter other governments from following suit in 2022. Between January and August, sub-Saharan Africa lost about $244.2 million to internet access restrictions. Such restrictions hinder the telecommunications industry from generating revenue that could positively contribute to the continent’s economy. 

The continental body should emphasize how a possible internet shutdown opposes its social and human capital development objective. The Mnangagwa-led administration should protect freedom of expression and constructive criticism in Zimbabwe. Only through this can Zimbabwe be open for business as the president desires. 

Also, some countries use sophisticated equipment to regulate connections to selected websites and online platforms to quell dissents. Through censorship technology like deep packet inspection equipment (DPI), the government interrupts the internet without directly ordering network service providers. But this move has done little to ease citizens’ grievances, as seen in Egypt during the Arab Spring. Rather than reduce the agitations, it spurred the aggression till Hosni Mubarak – the president – resigned. 

Companies producing DPI equipment should monitor their usage. Since freedom is vital, companies can ensure strict adherence to such via terms and conditions for procurement. In cases of violation, such companies can retract their agreements like the US-Canadian-based Sandvine Inc. did when Belarus manipulated its service to interrupt the internet during the election in 2020.

Efforts by the Zimbabwean government to gain unfettered powers through the PVO amendment bill are detrimental to citizens’ fundamental human rights. But proactive civil society organizations can enlighten the people to preserve their progressive freedom. Africa awaits tangible actions from the AU on online independence. Irrespective of the financial implications, tech-producing companies should advocate for digital freedom. Zimbabweans should better prepare against any internet restriction attempt before the election begins. 

Phillip Anjorin is a writing fellow at African Liberty.

Photo by AMISOM via Iwaria.