Zimbabwe orders a three-day, country-wide internet shutdown

Update 3, Jan. 24, 2019: The shutdown has ended, thanks to an interim court ruling on Monday.

Update 2, Jan. 18, 2019: Reports indicate that the government has once again imposed a full internet shutdown. Our coalition continues to urge full restoration of the internet and no app blocking, everywhere in Zimbabwe.

Update Jan. 16, 2019: It now appears that internet access has been at least partially restored, but social media platforms remain blocked. Cutting channels of communications like this is an attack on free expression, spreads confusion, and encourages more people to join public demonstrations. The #KeepItOn coalition continues to urge full access to the internet and for the social media block to be lifted across Zimbabwe.

Sources in Zimbabwe have disclosed to Access Now that the government has ordered a three-day internet shutdown across the country, starting today, January 15th.  Amid the ongoing citizen protests triggered by a sharp increase in the price of fuel, the government has evidently resorted to plunging the whole country into darkness in an internet shutdown potentially impacting over 17 million people, making Zimbabwe the second country in Africa with a major shutdown event in 2019 (after the Democratic Republic of Congo). This terrifying assault on human rights puts people’s lives in danger, and will only further decimate an already weakened, unstable economy.

Internet shutdowns do not restore order, help victims, or protect rights. Experts at the United Nations, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Organization of American States (OAS), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR), have declared that internet “kill switches” can never be justified under international human rights law, even in times of conflict.

Some internet services in Zimbabwe had already blocked social media platforms for a few hours yesterday and in the early hours today. More than 15,000 technical measurements crowd-sourced from Zimbabwe using NetBlocks tools confirmed that Facebook, Twitter, and other social media apps were blocked. To avoid censorship, Zimbabweans used VPNs to circumvent the social media blocking and share with the world evidence of the killing of protestors, injury, and  numerous other human rights violations that appear to have been perpetrated by police during the protests.

Thousands of Zimbabweans had been on the streets protesting the 150 percent increase in fuel prices. If authorities shut down the internet for three days, it will cost the country more than $17,227, 262, according to estimates using the COST tool from NetBlocks and the Internet Society. This will deepen and exacerbate the state of severe economic crisis in Zimbabwe, where the cost of living is already too expensive and people are suffering.  

In protests like this where numerous casualties are reported, it is essential that we protect the integrity of communications channels, including the internet, so that those injured can reach emergency and medical services, journalists can report stories and reach their sources, and families and friends can check in with their loved ones. Even with brief or partial shutdowns, the human rights and economic impact can be devastating. The longer a shutdown goes on, the worse the situation becomes for everyone, with corrosive knock-on effects for the economy and development.

The #KeepItOn coalition, representing more than 175 organizations in 60 countries, therefore calls on government authorities in Zimbabwe to immediately restore internet connection and to notify the public of this decision. 

Read the #KeepItOn coalition’s open letter: PDF or HTML version with additional signatories.