Only five days after the United Nations passed an historic resolution specifically condemning internet shutdowns, reports from Zimbabwe suggest that the government may have ordered WhatsApp blocked. Zimbabweans and local news outlets reported an internet shutdown in the context of massive social unrest. Thousands of people are protesting about bad governance and a collapsing economy in President Robert Mugabe’s government. News outlets identify Econet Wireless, Liquid Telecom Zimbabwe, Telecel, TelOne, and ZOL Zimbabwe as the telecom providers that are part of the service disruption.
While the full extent of what’s happening in Zimbabwe is not yet clear, we’re concerned about the safety and security of the people protesting. Internet shutdowns do not restore order, help victims, or protect rights.
Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulator, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), released a statement that warned all citizens against, “the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services.”
This statement follows the April 2016 statement by President Robert Mugabe, that the government would emulate China’s Great Firewall and regulate access to certain websites. At the time, he emphasized, “The Chinese have put in place security measures and we will look at these so that we stop these abuses on the internet.”
Shutdowns are a growing trend in Sub-Saharan Africa
Over the past two years, Access Now has recorded shutdowns in the following African Union member countries: Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, DRC, Uganda, Ethiopia, Niger, Togo, and Uganda. In February, we joined a coalition of groups to demand that the Ugandan government stop its shutdown during presidential elections.
We would like to emphasize to the Zimbabwean government what we told the Ugandan government in February:
A growing body of jurisprudence declares shutdowns to violate international law. In 2015, various experts from the United Nations (U.N.) Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), issued an historic statement declaring that internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict.  General Comment 34 of the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the official interpreter of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, emphasizes that restrictions on speech online must be strictly necessary and proportionate to achieve a legitimate purpose. Shutdowns disproportionately impact all users, and unnecessarily restrict access to information and emergency services communications during crucial moments.”
Call to action
We cannot allow this trend to continue and that is why we launched the #KeepitOn campaign — now supported by nearly 90 organizations from 41 countries around the world.
We call upon the government to provide redress to the victims of the internet shutdown, and pledge not to issue similar orders in the future.
We also call upon the African Union and Human Rights Council at the United Nations to condemn the internet shutdown in Zimbabwe, as it is a violation of international law. Further, we ask all telcos in the country, including Liquid Telecom and Econet among others, to push back against the order using every tool at their disposal, whether legal, political, or commercial. Already in 2016, telcos in Guinea and Kenya have pushed back against orders violating the human rights of internet users.
You can learn more at https://www.accessnow.org/internet-shutdowns, where we will be drawing attention to campaigns globally and sharing opportunities to take action. If you’re part of an organization that wants to help stop shutdowns in Africa or anywhere else, you can reach out to [email protected]. Meanwhile, we encourage you to stay tuned by following us on Twitter or Facebook, and to participate in the conversation using the hashtag #KeepitOn.