Internet Shutdown Ruled Unlawful: Zimbabwe Slips Back Toward Authoritarian Rule

Zimbabwe’s High Court ruled that the government had exceeded its authority when it ordered an internet blackout during last week’s violent protests. High Court Judge, Owen Tagu, ordered all telecommunications companies to immediately resume full service, a ruling that came as a sharp rebuke against the government’s previous command. It is believed that the motivation behind the internet blackout was to prevent citizens from broadcasting the protests to the rest of the world and shining a spotlight on the unrest that has plagued Harare and Bulawayo this past month. The rallies came in response to a 250 percent hike in fuel prices. Most importantly, many economists believe that gasoline prices are rising because Zimbabwe’s economy is headed toward its second collapse in a decade.

A spokesman for Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has accused the government of using the security forces to “dismantle” its critics. In fact, the violent crackdown on protestors has forced several opposition leaders to go into hiding as they fear that they would be arrested on charges of subversion. This was a tool often used by former President Robert Mugabe in order to quell dissidents, and the charge carries a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison. Indeed, the government’s efforts to contain unrest have gone beyond merely breaking up protests and blacking out the internet. Reuters states that according to witnesses, security forces were seen attacking people on the streets in an apparent attempt to intimidate the protestors. A resident of the Glen Norah township of Harare told a reporter, “Soldiers just appeared in a truck and started beating up people at the shopping center. They told everyone to go home and sleep.” Police brutality such as this is the clearest sign yet that current President Mnangagwa is steering the country back toward the authoritarian rule.

Because the source of the current unrest lies in the fragility of Zimbabwe’s economy, its hard-line response to demonstrators is unlikely to win it the economic support it desperately needs to combat inflation. President Mnangagwa cut short his trip to the World Economic Forum in Davos to return to Harare to address the political turmoil, a decision that essentially deprived the country of a critical opportunity to try and negotiate financial assistance packages. Moreover, the international community, which Zimbabwe needs to have on its side, is unlikely to show support if Zimbabwe demonstrates a blatant disregard for its citizen’s rights to protest. As such, the impact of the crackdown by security forces not only jeopardizes civil liberties but also threatens Zimbabwe’s chances of economic recovery.

Activists in Zimbabwe have reported that police and soldiers killed at least a dozen people and injured many more in their attempts to silence the opposition. The independent Zimbabwean Human Rights Commission has accused security forces of systematic torture that is used against the government critics. Japhet Moyo, the secretary-general of the Congress of Trade Unions, was recently arrested for voicing his opinion on the fuel price hike.

Amnesty International reported that children as young as eleven had been detained, “The authorities must immediately stop this merciless crackdown on activists, civil society leaders and others who are guilty of nothing more than exercising their right to freedom of expression.” Zimbabwe must heed this call because the implications of the government going down this path are directly tied to their chances of economic recovery. President Mnangagwa cannot expect financial assistance if this is the picture of Zimbabwe that the international community sees. Dialogue at the domestic level is certainly needed to allow both sides to see the extent of their situation and provide them with a platform to work together on a resolution. MDC leader, Nelson Chamisa, summarised the issue very well in his statement arguing for the release of those detained, “In order to dialogue, one’s tongue must be free to talk. The tongues of the nation are tied in jails (and) many others by fear. This must end.”