Threat of arrest by the police decried as an attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in a country in crisis.
Harare, Zimbabwe – Rights activists in Zimbabwe denounced a police statement warning social media users against engaging in what they called “cyberbullying” of government officials, calling it an attempt to muzzle the freedom of expression in the country.
In their statement on Monday, the Police of the Republic of Zimbabwe (ZRP) said arrests were “imminent” for anonymous “suspects” who “threatened and harassed government officials” on social media.
“ZRP cautions individuals and groups from committing crimes through cyberbullying government officials who will fulfill their constitutional and legal obligations in terms of providing services to Zimbabweans,” the statement said.
– Police of the Republic of Zimbabwe (@PoliceZimbabwe) December 7, 2020
Zimbabweans are currently the hardest hit by an economic crisis characterized by hyperinflation that has eroded the value of their income and unemployment that has reached around 90%.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa blames Western sanctions, among others, for the country’s problems, saying the punitive measures have “crippled” the country’s development.
But Mnangagwa, who has Facebook and Twitter accounts, is often the target of unpleasant comments from disgruntled Zimbabweans every time he posts on social media.
Government officials have also not been spared from criticism of how the 78-year-old has run the country’s economy since taking power in a military coup in November 2017.
The police statements came days after Patrick Chinamasa, acting spokesperson for ZANU-PF, the party that has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1980, claimed that the colonial masters of the Zimbabwe were using social media to “discredit icons like Mnangagwa”.
“The sanctions against Zimbabwe and the orchestrated social media attacks on our president and our first family are modern equivalents of the colonial-era public beheading and lynching,” Chinamasa said at a weekly press briefing .
He equated the social media attacks on Mnangagwa and his family with the attacks faced by the heroes of the anti-colonial wars,
Political analyst and commentator Rejoice Ngwenya criticized the police statement, saying the move violated basic rights such as freedom of expression.
“This is part of the extension of this government’s paranoia. The plan to stop what they call cyberbullying must be fought. It is completely illegal, ”Ngwenya told Al Jazeera. “We are a constitutional democracy.”
Ngwenya argued that the police warning was aimed at silencing critics of Mnangagwa on social media such as award-winning documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono, an anti-corruption activist facing trial for incitement to violent anti-government protests; and pro-democracy activist Pedzisai Ruhanya.
“It is subjective to say that when you comment and share your take on Collins Mnangagwa (Mnangagwa’s son) or Emmerson Mnangagwa … on social media it amounts to trolling or harassment,” said Ngwenya. “Who judges this to be cyberbullying and what are the criteria?”
In recent months, human rights activists and human rights groups have denounced an “unprecedented” crackdown on dissent which has resulted in the arrest of dozens of activists and officials. the opposition. The government has denied that it has suppressed opposing voices.
Tabani Moyo, director of the Southern African Media Institute in Zimbabwe, also denounced the police statement as an attack on freedom of expression.
“It is very unfortunate that in this polarized environment, the police have taken a stand to protect the ruling elites. They should not be seen as isolating public officials from checks, ”Moyo told Al Jazeera.
“They need to understand that there is a difference between cyberbullying and freedom of expression and accountability to public officials. As a people, we have the right to express ourselves freely.