President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government has developed a knack for blaming everything that has gone bad in Zimbabwe on social media a default mode that has seen it shutting down the Internet recently.
When angry Zimbabweans poured onto the streets to demonstrate against a 150 percent increase in fuel prices last month, government blamed social media for causing the violent protests that rocked the country, resulting in several people being killed and hundreds of others severely injured.
This was after protesters clashed with security forces during the three-day strike called by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions and social movement #ThisFlag.
Rights groups slammed the shutting down of the Internet during the protests saying it severely limited the ability of human rights defenders to document and expose human rights violations.
It also put them at increased risk by restricting their ability to communicate.
Now government has yet again blamed social media for causing the return of fuel queues.
It’s a blame game that government has mastered.
And its default mode would be to shut down social media once again when push comes to shove.
One of the first African leaders to set up a website and to run Twitter and Facebook accounts, Mnangagwa has justified the blockade on Internet connections and social media services saying this does not mean he was intolerant to criticism but was a key decision meant to temporarily restrict access to prevent the wanton looting and violence, and to help restore calm.
“I believe deeply in freedom of speech and expression, and these rights are enshrined in our Constitution. You only need to look at a newspaper or read my social media comments to see the level of criticism I get, and I welcome this,” he said.
His comments are ironic, given that the international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders identifies him as a “predator” who attacks press freedom, citing the fact that since he took power, he has refused to overhaul legislation that oppresses journalists.
Mnangagwa has also been reluctant to transform the State-owned media into a public service media and open up broadcasting to private sector entrepreneurs and journalists from outside the government’s immediate circle.
He has also failed to end the impunity that those responsible for violence against journalists enjoy.
Critics said Mnangagwa is not comfortable with the new media offering alternative narratives to the propaganda Zimbabweans are spoon-fed on television and in State-controlled print.
Instead of widening democratic space as pledged when he assumed power in November 2017, Mnangagwa’s administration is enacting a new law, the Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill, which allows investigating authorities to seize computer devices and mobile phones during investigations, even if the equipment is not directly involved in the criminal activity being probed.
The regime claims the new law will also help the extradition of Zimbabweans in other countries who use social media to organise protests at home.
Even the security forces are being trained to handle the Internet.
General Philip Sibanda, the commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces is on record saying the security forces were on “alert” to deal with any “cyber-based destabilisation” of Zimbabwe.
Government seems fearful of the right to freedom of expression on the Internet in the wake of the massive role that social media networks played in the Arab Spring.
In North Africa uprisings, anti-government activists managed to loosen government’s strong grip on power.
They managed to defy government’s control over information flow using Blackberry messenger to fuel their revolution.
This was their solution to counter State propaganda, with enlightened citizens knowing which platforms to follow and which ones were a decoy to confuse them.
In Zimbabwe, social media has countered the propaganda State media wheels relentlessly.
Zimbabwe’s main opposition MDC spokesperson Jacob Mafume said Zanu PF fears that social media will cause a revolution.
“They have seen how other entrenched dictators before them fell in social media-accelerated revolutions.
“In recent history, Tunisia, Egypt and the Gambia experienced awe-striking political transitions and social media played a crucial role in all those cases,” he opined.
Piers Pigou, senior consultant at the International Crisis Group told the Daily News on Sunday that Mnangagwa’s government was taking a depressingly familiar narrative largely divorced from reality — a narrative of unproven allegations, and sensational embellishment.
“This now includes blaming social media for facilitating violent protests, and is presented as justification for clamping down on protest,” said Pigou.
“It may be true if they can prove these allegations, but their record in proving such conspiracies is frankly abysmal.
“As such, it appears the return to the tried and trusted blame game is part of efforts to neutralise critics and divert attention from the mountain of allegations being levelled at then.”
Political analyst Rashweat Mukundu said the Zanu PF government is partly anchored on monopolising and controlling information.
Naturally, Mukundu said the social space presents the party and government with a challenge they are not used to and the reaction has been negative and extreme, that is, shutting down the net, arresting people for what they say online, and the threat of cyber laws.
He said while social media indeed has lots of fake news, the solution is to promote quality journalism and licence more television and radio stations that provide a diversity of information.
“The response by the government is not only offside but disproportionate. Technology is now way ahead of government and Zanu PF benefits by being a player and not a disrupter.
“Shutdowns, arrests and bad laws are too costly to the national interest,” said Mukundu. Daily News