Don’t stifle free speech: Zimbabwe must #KeepItOn during planned protests

July 30, 2020 — The #KeepItOn coalition — a global network of human rights organizations that work to end internet shutdowns — has received worrying reports from our partners in Zimbabwe that the government intends to shut down the internet, stifling  anti-government protests planned to take place on Friday, July 31, 2020.

As organizations that believe in the power of the internet as an enabler of a myriad of human rights, we urgently call on  President Emmerson Mnangagwa to ensure the internet and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible throughout Zimbabwe during the #31July2020 protests and thereafter.  

“Enough is enough. Internet shutdowns cannot be allowed to continually dampen democratic actions in Zimbabwe,” said Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Lead at Access Now. “Governments across the region are growing cocky, hitting the kill switch at any sign of unrest or dissent. But the #KeepItOn coalition will continue to draw attention to these blatant acts of oppression until they’re wiped from the government playbook.”

Underscored by COVID-19 physical distancing regulations, access to the internet and digital communication tools facilitate the enjoyment and exercise of people’s constitutionally guaranteed rights including freedom of opinion and expression, access to information, and freedom of association and to peaceful assembly essential tenets of every democratic society. However, the government of Zimbabwe has a history of throttling the internet and instituting intentional internet blackouts ahead of, or during, protests.

On January 15, 2019, the entire country was plunged into digital darkness following a directive from the Minister of State for National Security in the President’s Office. It was subsequently restored after the Zimbabwe High Court ruled that the Minister of State for National Security does not have the authority to issue directives thus making the shutdown illegal shutdown was illegal , following a lawsuit brought before the court by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zimbabwe) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. In 2016, the Zimbabwean government ordered the shutdown of  social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp aimed at disrupting demonstrations planned under #ThisFlag social movement.

Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition urges Zimbabwe to adhere to the assurances made by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), the national communications regulator, in March, 2020, that network services will not be disrupted during the lockdown period, or beyond. POTRAZ also acknowledged the important need for stakeholders to use existing technologies in order to conduct businesses online to avoid physical contact. 

The #KeepItOn coalition is equally alarmed about the recent detention of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono and activist Jacob Ngarichume. The government of Zimbabwe has a duty to uphold and protect all rights  guaranteed in the Constitution of Zimbabwe, as well as regional and international frameworks such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

More on global internet shutdowns: Access Now and the #KeepItOn coalition has launched Kill Switch, a six-part podcast series exploring the devastating impact of internet shutdowns on the human rights of people affected by this extraordinary form of anti-democratic oppression.