Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe

Partly Free
42
100
A Obstacles to Access 7 25
B Limits on Content 19 35
C Violations of User Rights 16 40
Last Year's Score & Status
47 100 Partly Free

Overview

The internet freedom environment in Zimbabwe worsened during the coverage period, largely due to repressive measures that were imposed by the government in response to mass protests in January 2019. The authorities ordered social media blocking and network shutdowns as a means of curbing the demonstrations, though some observers suggested that the restrictions were also intended to provide cover for security forces to carry out a violent crackdown. The protests began as a labor movement and were sparked by a 150 percent increase in fuel prices. The economy was in a dire state throughout the coverage period, drastically reducing many Zimbabweans’ standard of living.

Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president who had risen to the presidency in 2017 when the military forced out longtime leader Robert Mugabe, was confirmed in office through a deeply flawed July 2018 election. Following the July 2018 elections, an independent advocacy organization’s site was blocked. Although Mugabe’s ouster had raised hopes for an end to authoritarian misrule, his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) party remains in power, and the country still faces problems including endemic corruption, weak rule of law, and poor protections for workers and land rights.

Key Developments

June 1, 2018 – May 31, 2019

  • An economic crisis and high inflation during the coverage period raised the cost of living, making internet service less affordable than in the past (see A2).

  • The government ordered blocking of social media platforms and network shutdowns over a one-week period in January 2019. Officials claimed that the moves were necessary to stop alleged crimes and violence by protesters (see A3, B1, and B3).

  • The website of the independent advocacy organization Zimbabwe Election 2018 was blocked following the July 2018 elections (see B1). 

  • Social media were used to help mobilize participation in the January 2019 antigovernment protests (see B8).

  • The government continued its consideration of new legislation that could regulate social media and criminalize certain behavior by users (see C2).

  • Numerous individuals were arrested for their activities online, including Evan Mawarire, who was charged with inciting public violence after he posted messages in support of the labor protests on Facebook and Twitter (see C3).

A Obstacles to Access

The government ordered social media blocking and network shutdowns during widespread protests in January 2019. The connectivity disruptions lasted for about a week, until a court ordered authorities to end them. Access also became more difficult during the coverage period due to hyperinflation, which raised prices for internet service along with other basic needs.

A1 0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 16

Although the government reports favorable statistics on internet penetration, the quality and accessibility of connections remain limited in practice. Penetration is lower in most rural and peri-urban areas due to relatively high costs and lack of infrastructure.

According to official government data from the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (POTRAZ), internet penetration in Zimbabwe in the fourth quarter of 2018 stood at 62.9 percent, up from 55.4 percent in the previous quarter.1 POTRAZ also reported that the mobile penetration rate increased by 1.2 percentage points to 93.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2018.2

By contrast, the latest available data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) pointed to a much lower rate of internet penetration—27 percent as of 2017.3 In the past, the government had reported 100 percent mobile phone penetration, likely because many users had more than one subscription.

POTRAZ reported improvements in infrastructure, including an increased number of mobile base stations. From the third quarter to the fourth quarter of 2018, 134 new base stations were reported, including 38 with third-generation (3G) mobile network technology and 38 with long-term evolution (LTE) capabilities.4 However, infrastructure is still lacking, particularly in rural areas (see A2). In January 2019 POTRAZ released a notice about its plans to make more frequency bands available for broadband fixed wireless access (BFWA).5

Research by M-Lab, a partnership between Google and Princeton University, ranked Zimbabwe at 121 out of 200 countries for broadband speed in 2018. Though Zimbabwe’s standing fell in the global comparison, M-Lab stated that it had an average connection speed of 2.86 Mbps, which was an improvement from 2.49 Mbps in 2017.6

The country experienced mobile and internet service failures in early March 2019, which leading mobile service provider Econet attributed to systems failures.7 Such infrastructure failures have been tied to the country’s acute currency crisis, which compounds the problems associated with broader lack of investment in the telecommunications sector. With limited access to foreign currency, service providers struggle to keep up payments to equipment suppliers and other partners in Europe and China.8

A2 0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 03

Increasingly high costs and urban-rural divides have affected internet access, outpacing government attempts to address such problems.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet ranks Zimbabwe at 52 out of 60 low-income countries in terms of affordability.1 In June 2018, POTRAZ ordered a 60 percent cut in the price of some mobile data plans.2 It argued that the reduction was needed to facilitate the use of online payments in light of the cash shortage. However, the mandated cuts have been at least partly reversed as service providers complain that the viability of their businesses is under threat amid the worsening economic situation.

After POTRAZ’s announcement, the internet service provider (ISP) Zimbabwe Online increased its data charges by 5 percent. It justified the increase by arguing that it could not absorb both the latest cuts and a 5 percent tax levied by POTRAZ in 2017.3 In March 2019, the company, also known as ZOL, further increased prices following the devaluation of Zimbabwe’s bond-note currency against the US dollar.4

Rising inflation has made the cost of internet service increasingly expensive. According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), inflation rose from 0.9 percent in 2017 to 10.6 percent in 2018 and 73.4 percent in early 2019.5

There remains a significant urban-rural divide among Zimbabwean internet users. The internet penetration rate in rural communities is only about 10 percent,6 and service providers do not invest in new technology for such areas, which still feature 2G mobile transmitters. POTRAZ’s expansion of BFWA frequencies (see A1) is meant to enhance broadband connectivity in rural Zimbabwe, especially for schools, hospitals, police stations, and local council offices.7

POTRAZ reports that 15 percent of the country’s population, mainly in poor rural communities, have no access to any form of telecommunications, as there is no network coverage.8

For several years, POTRAZ has been working on a project to establish Community Information Centres (CICs) meant to improve internet access and digital literacy in marginalized communities. The Ministry of Information Communication Technology stated that there were 87 CICs at the end of the coverage period,9 and a news report from after the coverage period, in July 2019, indicated that there were 98 CICs in operation.10

Usage of the centers is limited by digital literacy problems in most rural communities, as well as by a perception that those who are critical of the ruling ZANU-PF party will not have unfettered access to the facilities. In July 2018, President Mnangagwa said that POTRAZ should work to make telecommunications accessible to all regardless of ethnicity or geographic location, and he expressed his intention to address digital divides along rural, gender, age, and ability lines.11

A3 0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 36

The authorities imposed social media blocking and network shutdowns beginning on January 15, 2019.1 The services began to be restored on January 21, after the High Court ruled the government’s actions illegal.2 Access was fully restored by January 24.3 These disruptions came as the government struggled to control a series of national protests called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) over deteriorating economic conditions.4 The network shutdown was not absolute; partial service was available on at least one of the affected days.5 The blocked social media sites included Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Reddit.6

Senior government officials including President Mnangagwa defended the network shutdown, stating that it was necessary to stop alleged crimes and violence by protesters, who used social media to mobilize (see B8).7 Econet said it received a warrant from the state security minister and the director general of the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) that instructed the mobile service provider to shut down access under the Interception of Communications Act. Econet noted that its executives faced possible imprisonment if they did not comply with the order.8

The shutdown drew condemnation from local and international human rights groups. The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) challenged it in court, arguing that the state security minister and the director general of the CIO had no authority under the Interception of Communications Act to shut down internet access and that the move violated freedom of expression, which is guaranteed by the constitution.9 Some observers denounced the shutdown as an attempt to cover up security forces’ abuse of citizens during the protests (see B8).10 The court’s ruling against the network shutdown was based on the conclusion that the minister who issued the order did not have the authority to do so,11 rather than on the plaintiffs’ constitutional argument, prompting some observers to express concern that the decision left room for future network disruptions ordered by an official with the correct legal authority.

In fact, Deputy Information Minister Energy Mutodi explicitly stated that the government would not hesitate to shut down internet service again: “The internet shutdown was not illegal as such. The only issue that arose is that the person who ordered the shutdown is not the rightful person to do that.… Government can invoke the Interception of Communications Act because that is part of our law. Whenever the need arises, government will invoke that.”12

Zimbabwe has five international gateways for internet traffic, controlled by state-owned TelOne and Powertel and privately owned Dandemutande, Econet, and Africom. State control over two of the country’s gateways gives the government some ability to unilaterally restrict access to internet and mobile networks.

In March 2018, Mnangagwa launched the National Policy for Information and Communication Technology (ICT), which sets out a plan to centralize control over the country’s internet backbone.13 In the 2016 version of the policy, Section 7 on “ICT Infrastructure” detailed plans to establish a single national ICT backbone to be owned by various public and private shareholders but ultimately controlled by the government.14 The section also mandated infrastructure sharing among telecommunications firms, drawing objections from companies that have invested heavily in their own infrastructure, which called the plan a form of “backdoor nationalization.”15 Most troublingly, Section 23.3 prescribed the creation of a “National Backbone Company,” defined by the document as “one Super Gateway which shall be the entry and exit point for all international traffic.”16 These plans had yet to be implemented during the coverage period.

A4 0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 36

The ICT market in Zimbabwe is diverse, with 12 licensed internet access providers (IAPs) and 16 internet service providers (ISPs) registered with the Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association (ZISPA) in 2019.1

Regulatory license fees for ISPs range from US$2 million to US$4 million, depending on the type of service.2 Providers must also pay 3.5 percent of their annual gross income to the regulator. An aspiring ISP, TeleContract (Private) Limited, initiated legal proceedings in 2017 to challenge the regulator’s high fees in court, calling them “unreasonable.”3 As of mid-2019, the matter was under appeal.4 In general, there is a sense among private telecommunications firms that the regulator favors state-owned entities and sets onerous license fees and conditions to disadvantage private competitors.

Zimbabwe has five mobile service providers: privately owned Econet and Africom, and state-owned TelOne, Telecel, and NetOne. Econet is the leader in the sector, with a market share of 65 percent as of early 2018.5 Telecel had only partial state ownership until 2016, when the government reportedly paid US$21 million for its acquisition;6 the move was seen as part of an effort to consolidate government control over telecommunications. In 2018, however, the government said Telecel was one of the underperforming state-owned enterprises that could be subject to overhaul or privatization.7 Boardroom and ownership squabbles at the firm have resulted in a loss of market share.8

License fees for mobile services in Zimbabwe are also quite high at US$137.5 million,9 deterring new players from entering the market. By contrast, neighboring South Africa charges a telecommunications license fee of 100 million rand (US$7 million).10 According to Econet, the only Zimbabwean provider that has paid the fee in full, license fee requirements have been used to undermine the private players, as the state-owned firms have not been forced to pay the full amount.11 Former information minister Jonathan Moyo, who was expelled from ZANU-PF after the 2017 ouster of Mugabe, has accused Econet of cooperation and exchanges of favors with the ruling party,12 though the claims have not been independently verified.13

A5 0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 04

Mobile and fixed-line service providers are regulated by POTRAZ, whose leaders are appointed by the president in consultation with the Ministry of Information Communication Technology. POTRAZ is expected to operate independently, but in practice its independence has eroded over the years, as it has become increasingly subordinated to state security agencies.

In 2016, for example, a former intelligence official, Gift Machengete, was appointed as director general of POTRAZ, which observers said was an indication of the government’s plans to monitor and restrict online activities.1 IAPs and ISPs are also subject to security screenings by the military, according to local sources.

POTRAZ was largely seen as having supported and enabled the government’s order to restrict connectivity in January 2019. The authority was named as one of the defendants in the MISA and ZLHR lawsuit that eventually ended the network shutdown (see A3).2

The regulator took a rare positive step to protect consumers in February 2018, when it ordered state-owned NetOne to compensate its mobile subscribers who lost data due to technical errors.3 In July 2018, POTRAZ was reportedly investigating NetOne over allegations that it had submitted inconsistent records on its mobile subscriber base. POTRAZ had ordered a clean-up of subscription data to ascertain the true extent of mobile phone penetration in Zimbabwe.4

B Limits on Content

The government’s decision to block social media and messaging platforms in January 2019 came in response to citizens’ use of the services as a mobilization tool during that month’s street protests. Also during the coverage period, the website of an independent advocacy organization was blocked following the general elections in July 2018.

B1 0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 46

Social media and messaging platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Tinder were blocked for about one week during the coverage period.1 The block began on January 15 and continued until a court ordered providers to lift the blocking on January 21 (see A3).2 Searches for and use of virtual private networks (VPNs) surged during this period, as individuals sought ways to circumvent the blocks.3

In a separate incident in the days following the July 2018 elections, Zimelection.com, the website of the independent United Kingdom–based advocacy organization Zimbabwe Election 2018, was blocked by state-owned TelOne.4 The site remained accessible via other ISPs.

B2 0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 34

A number of civic and opposition leaders have deleted Facebook and Twitter posts in response to threats or arrests. Local sources reported that Chalton Hwende, a leading member of Parliament with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), deleted tweets that called for protests against President Mnangagwa after he received online threats and harassment from known ZANU-PF supporters.1 Nevertheless, Hwende was arrested in March 2019 and charged with subversion (see C3).2

B3 0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 14

The network shutdown in mid-January 2019 exposed the lack of safeguards against arbitrary government decisions affecting internet access. The High Court judgment that nullified the shutdown exposed the abuse of existing national laws, especially the Interception of Communications Act (see A3).1

In their legal argument against the shutdown, MISA and ZLHR noted that the unlawful suspension exposed citizens and businesses to unnecessary losses in income, among other disproportionate harms.2 The service disruption also affected students, and ordinary people were unable to carry out daily activities, such as electronic banking, that are essential for meeting their basic needs.3 In its response to the challenge, the government focused on national security, arguing that the shutdown was justified because the internet and social media were contributing to violence and illegal activity.4

B4 0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 24

Self-censorship remains common among Zimbabweans. The arrest of human rights defenders and opposition figures over their online activism (see C3), as well as the government’s threatening statements about posting critical content, palpably increased fear and inhibited expression during the coverage period, according to local observers. The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC), the police, and government officials have particularly warned against sharing what they call fake news.

Statements on social media use by POTRAZ have also been interpreted as attempts to instill self-censorship among users. In December 2018, for example, a POTRAZ official said that “sending abusive and explicit messages is banned and anyone caught doing so is liable for prosecution.”1

B5 0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 24

False news has become more prevalent in recent years, with a notable increase in false information disseminated on social media during the military intervention in late 2017 that led to Robert Mugabe’s resignation, as well as during the July 2018 election period.1 Unverified election results, for example, were shared on social media platforms.2

In early 2019, a story that the government was planning to introduce a second currency in February became so prominent that the Reserve Bank was forced to deny the claim in a press release.3 False information also fueled political attacks on the opposition in the lead-up to the elections in July 2018. For instance, the state media attacked MDC leader Nelson Chamisa with falsified reports on his campaign strategies and actions, such as a story that Chamisa was colluding with former president Mugabe.4

ZANU-PF is believed to pay progovernment commentators to defend the new administration and attack opponents on social media. Addressing ZANU-PF youth activists in March 2018, Mnangagwa urged them to “dominate” the social media space ahead of the elections.5 Observers noted that the statement coincided with an increase in anonymous accounts on both Facebook and Twitter that attacked perceived government opponents, especially human rights defenders and opposition party members.6

B6 0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 13

Online news outlets and other content producers are free to seek advertising without onerous legal restrictions. However, the allocation of advertising may be affected by political pressures or interests, limiting revenues for outlets that are critical of the authorities. The country’s dire economic situation, which can be attributed in large part to government corruption and mismanagement, also threatens the financial viability of online publishing.

The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) requires that webcasting be licensed under the Broadcasting Services Act.1 However, the rule has largely been ignored by upstart online news agencies, many of which distribute content without licenses on YouTube.

B7 0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 34

Zimbabwe’s online landscape continues to grow in vibrancy, with services like Facebook, Google, and YouTube freely available and among the country’s most popular websites. Increasing access to ICTs has spawned numerous citizen initiatives, such as the @OpenParlyZw Twitter account, which is owned by the youth ICT network Magamba and actively monitors parliamentary activities.1 Magamba also publishes interviews and runs a weekly satirical analysis of key national issues on Facebook.2 Other citizen journalism efforts on social media, such as @263 on Twitter, have developed into full-fledged online news outlets.3

In 2018, Alpha Media Holdings, which publishes several newspapers, launched an online version of the daily paper NewsDay, with a subscription price of US$5 per month.4 According to local sources, foreign-based online news agencies such as New Zimbabwe are setting up offices in the country and hiring local staff, reflecting a slight opening in the media space after Mugabe’s ouster in 2017.

B8 0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 36

Social media became a key source of information for citizens and activists during the political events of late 2017, the July 2018 elections, and the January 2019 protests. All leading political parties and candidates in 2018 ran extensive social media campaigns,1 and new election-related hashtags emerged, such as #EDPfee, #NelsonChamisa, #ZimbaweDecides2018.2

Social media were used to mobilize the January 2019 protests and document human rights abuses associated with the authorities’ response, apparently motivating the government’s attempts to block the platforms and disrupt internet service.3

Some observers specifically condemned the internet shutdown as a way of covering up the military’s abuse of citizens during the protests.4 Reports indicated that 12 people were killed by the military and hundreds more were injured and detained.5 Human rights violations that occurred during the shutdown were exposed when service was restored and the social media blocks were lifted, as observers had recorded videos of some incidents on their smartphones.6 The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission made a direct connection between the human rights abuses and the shutdown, calling on the government “not to violate citizens’ rights to information by blocking social media and internet services.”7

C Violations of User Rights

A number of individuals were arrested or harassed for their online activities during the coverage period, especially in relation to the January 2019 protests. The government was considering the adoption of a new law that would criminalize what it called abusive conduct online, including the publication of false information under some circumstances.

C1 0-6 pts
Do the constitution or other laws fail to protect rights such as freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom, including on the internet, and are they enforced by a judiciary that lacks independence? 26

The 2013 constitution provides for press freedom, freedom of expression, and access to information, but these guarantees are contradicted by a number of laws.1 One such law, the Interception of Communications Act, was used as a justification for the internet shutdown in January 2019 (see A3).2 In a positive sign for judicial independence, the High Court found the shutdown to be illegal because the minister who ordered it had no authority to do so.3 However, some observers are concerned that the ruling focused on the process behind the order rather than the legality of internet disruptions in general, leaving the door open for further shutdowns in the future.

Violations of the due process rights of protesters who were arrested in January 2019 (see C3) prompted human rights defenders to renew concerns about the politicization of the judiciary.4

C2 0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 14

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act places restrictions on certain types of speech that apply equally online and off. Section 33 of the law characterizes “undermining [the] authority of or insulting [the] President” in any printed or electronic medium as a crime against the state and prescribes fines, penalties of up to one year in prison, or both.1 In a positive step, a landmark constitutional ruling in 2016 annulled Section 96 of the act, which had criminalized defamation,2 though the vaguely defined “criminal insult” remains an offense under Section 95.

During the coverage period, the government was still considering a draft law that would criminalize certain forms of online speech and activity. The draft was later approved by the cabinet in October 2019, though it had yet to make its way through Parliament.3 The call for such a law grew more vocal within the government after the January 2019 protests.4

That month, Information, Publicity, and Broadcasting Services Minister Monica Mutsvangwa said the proposed law would help ensure that “internet and related technologies are used for the good of society, not to violate national security.”5 The minister denounced citizen journalists for sharing false stories that polarize society.

An earlier version of the cybercrime bill had been consolidated in February 2018 with two other pieces of legislation, the Data Protection Bill and the Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commerce Bill. Media advocates criticized the move, arguing that the right to privacy needed to be codified separately.6 In September 2018, President Mnangagwa included the three bills as part of his legislative agenda for the upcoming parliamentary session.7

The following were among the problematic provisions of the draft cybercrime bill as published in 2017:

  • Section 16 penalizes the dissemination of communications “with intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, threaten bully or cause substantial emotional distress” with a fine, prison terms of up to 10 years, or both,8 which observers believe will be used to punish criticism of the government on social media.9
  • Section 17 penalizes the spread of false information “to cause psychological or economic harm” with fines, up to five years in prison, or both.10

While the government claimed that the cybercrime bill was focused on offenses such as financial crimes, human rights defenders warned that it could be used to target social media activists. Critics also argued that the bill provided police with too much discretionary power to access personal or private information through a warrant from a magistrate, who may lack independence from the executive.11

C3 0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 36

The government is intolerant of critical online commentary and activism, often invoking vaguely written laws to arrest users. Full prosecutions and lengthy prison sentences are less common.

The following individuals were among those arrested for legitimate online activities during the coverage period:

  • MDC lawmaker Chalton Hwende was arrested in March 2019 and charged with subversion over a 2018 tweet in which he said the opposition would protest against President Mnangagwa.1
  • Evan Mawarire, founder of the social media movement #ThisFlag, was arrested in January 2019 and charged with subversion after posting comments in support of the protests organized by labor unions that month.2 Mawarire had faced similar charges in connection with past protests.3
  • Also in January, ZCTU president Peter Mutasa was arrested on charges of subversion. The police cited a video calling for a general strike that Mutasa and Mawarire had recorded and circulated on social media.4
  • Zimbabwe Youth Alliance president Learnmore Magorimbo was similarly charged in January 2019 with inciting violence and subverting the government, having shared WhatsApp messages encouraging people to join the strikes.5
  • MDC member Jim Kunaka was arrested and charged with subverting the government the same month after allegedly inciting violence on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp during the January strikes.6
  • Two Midlands State University students were arrested in November 2018 for allegedly sending insulting and threatening messages about Mnangagwa in a WhatsApp group. The two, Prince Kamutsamba and Lloyd Zata, were charged with undermining the authority of the president under Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. They were released after police questioned them and searched their phones.7
  • In July 2018, the Sunday Mail reported that police had arrested four people for allegedly spreading hate speech and false information related to the elections on social media.8

C4 0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 34

User privacy and anonymity are compromised by SIM-card registration regulations implemented in 2011, which require mobile phone subscribers to submit personal identity details to service providers, ostensibly to combat crime and curtail threatening or obscene communications.1 Under the 2013 Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations (Statutory Instrument 142/2013), subscribers must register with all telecommunications service providers by turning over details including a full name, permanent residential address, nationality, gender, subscriber identification number, and national identification or passport number.2 Service providers are then required to retain such personal information for five years after either party has discontinued the subscription.

The privacy of mobile subscribers was violated during the July 2018 elections when unsolicited campaign messages were disseminated by ZANU-PF. Both the ZEC and mobile companies denied giving the party access to phone numbers;3 the ZEC had compiled phone numbers as part of the voter registration process. The ZANU-PF campaign messages mentioned the recipient phone owners by name, including many who were not party members, adding to the sense that their privacy had been invaded.

C5 0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 26

Concerns about unchecked government surveillance were underscored by revelations that the government had partnered with Chinese company CloudWalk Technology in March 2018 to implement a nationwide facial recognition program.1 In China, facial recognition technology has already been used to persecute human rights activists,2 leading to worries that the new program could empower the Zimbabwean government to do the same. MISA also expressed concerns about how the technology might infringe on ordinary citizens’ privacy rights.3 The program is part of China’s investment of US$71 million through its global Belt and Road Initiative for the development of Zimbabwe’s ICT infrastructure.

During the January 2019 protests and internet disruptions, police were forced to deny claims circulating on social media that they were monitoring members of the public who accessed the internet via VPNs and would arrest and prosecute the people in question.4

Several legal provisions may permit the government to conduct surveillance without sufficient oversight. The Post and Telecommunications Act of 2000 allows the government to intercept suspicious communications.5

The draft National Policy for Information and Communication Technology introduced in late 2015, if implemented, would enhance the government’s authority over networks and content, as well as strengthen the government’s surveillance capabilities through centralized control over the country’s internet backbone (see A3). Also in 2015, Portnet Software—in which the government owned a 51 percent stake—reportedly upgraded its capacity to help the authorities intercept and analyze digital communications.6 Experts characterized the move as part of an effort to facilitate implementation of the draft national policy.7 Provisions in the draft cybercrime bill that was first introduced in 2016 also potentially intruded on citizens’ right to privacy by authorizing interception, search, and seizure of electronic devices without sufficient oversight to prevent abuse.

C6 0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 06

The Interception of Communications Act of 2007 provided for the establishment of a Monitoring of Interception of Communications Centre with the power to oversee traffic on all telecommunications services and to intercept phone calls, emails, and faxes under the pretext of national security. It was unclear whether the center was in operation during the coverage period.1 Section 9 of the act requires telecommunications operators and ISPs to install necessary surveillance technology at their own expense and to intercept information on the state’s behalf.2 Failure to comply is punishable with a fine and prison sentences of up to three years. Warrants allowing the monitoring and interception of communications are issued by the minister of information at his or her discretion; consequently, there is no adequate judicial oversight or other independent safeguard against abuse,3 and the extent and frequency of monitoring remains unknown.

The Post and Telecommunications Act of 2000 requires a telecommunications licensee, such as an ISP, to supply information to government officials upon request.4 Section 88 of the act also obligates the companies to report any communications with “offensive” or “threatening” content.5

The 2013 Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations (Statutory Instrument 142/2013) require ISPs to provide POTRAZ with copies of their subscriber registry to be stored in a Central Subscriber Information Database, enabling the regulator to “assist law enforcement agencies on safeguarding national security,” among other aims.6 An amendment to the regulations in 2014 requires law enforcement agents to obtain a court order or a warrant to request information from the central database;7 some observers have noted that this falls short of independent judicial oversight since a warrant “can be issued by police officers who have been designated as justices of the peace.”8 In 2017, POTRAZ invited companies to bid for a contract to build the information database.9

C7 0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 35

Online journalists and ICT users face regular harassment, intimidation, and violence for their online activities. Members of the political opposition and human rights defenders similarly encounter threats in response to their communications via social media and messaging tools.1

The following were among the more prominent cases of intimidation during the coverage period:

  • In March 2019, the Daily News reported that the ZANU-PF provincial youth chairperson for Mashonaland West, Vengai Musengi, had summoned administrators of the party’s WhatsApp groups for questioning in order to flush out members who had circulated critical messages about party leaders. Musengi threatened those who did not cooperate with “disciplinary measures.”2
  • In February 2019, human rights defender Rashid Mahiya was allegedly threatened several times on Twitter by ZANU-PF supporters, and in an effort to coerce him into turning himself in for arrest, soldiers raided the home of his family, assaulting his brother and abducting his mother. She was released a few hours later, after Mahiya surrendered to the authorities. He was arrested on charges of subversion related to his actions during the January strike and protests.3
  • Local sources reported that the MDC’s Chalton Hwende, who was eventually arrested in March 2019, deleted tweets that called for protests against Mnangagwa after he received online threats and harassment from known ZANU-PF supporters (see B2 and C3).

C8 0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 23

During the 2018 election period, hackers reportedly broke into ZEC servers and copied voters’ names and phone numbers, which they posted on the internet.1 The veracity of the ZEC’s claims about the hack was never proven, and the opposition alleged that the ZEC was covering up for its sharing of voter phone numbers with ZANU-PF for campaign purposes.2

In January 2019, hackers under the name Anonymous said they had taken down over 70 government websites. The attack was deemed a response to the government’s human rights violations during the January 2019 protests.3

Country Facts

  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    Yes
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes

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