Zimbabwe

Partly Free
46
100
A Obstacles to Access 9 25
B Limits on Content 22 35
C Violations of User Rights 15 40
Last Year's Score & Status
42 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Zimbabwe’s score improved during the coverage period, largely because the social media blocking and network shutdowns imposed by the government in response to mass protests in January 2019 were not repeated. The economy continued to decline throughout the coverage period, drastically reducing many Zimbabweans’ standard of living and ability to access the internet.

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. 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.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2019 - May 31, 2020

  • Access to the internet is increasingly beyond the means of the majority of the citizens of Zimbabwe, with the economic crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic (see A2).
  • New COVID-19 regulations were instituted in April 2020 to limit the spread of false information restricted free expression, leading to self-censorship (see B4 and C2)
  • Numerous individuals were arrested for their online activities, often for criticism of government authorities or for violating the new COVID-19 false information regulations (see C3).
  • In May 2020, a new data protection bill with concerningly broad loopholes, particularly for the government, was introduced to parliament. The law would also criminalize a broad range of online speech (see C2 and C6).
  • In August 2019, a prominent online comedian was abducted and tortured, likely by state security agents (see C7).

A Obstacles to Access

The COVID-19 pandemic and rising hyperinflation devastated the economy, raising prices for internet services and other basic goods. The Postal and Telecommunications Regulation Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) extended an income tax exemption for the Chinese company Huawei, raising concerns about the regulator’s independence. There were no further incidents of the government restricting connectivity, as occurred during the January 2019 protests.

A1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do infrastructural limitations restrict access to the internet or the speed and quality of internet connections? 1.001 6.006

Internet access is severely limited in Zimbabwe, exacerbated by a growing economic crisis and inadequate electrical infrastructure.

In December 2019, POTRAZ reported an internet penetration rate of 62.9 percent, a decrease of 2.3 percent from the previous quarter.1 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 2017.2 POTRAZ reported a 2.5 percent decrease in mobile subscriptions in the first three months of 2019, a decrease from 93.1 percent to 90.6 percent, with losses distributed across mobile providers.3 In the past, the government had reported 100 percent mobile phone penetration, likely because many users had more than one subscription.

While the government reports favorable statistics on internet penetration, the quality and accessibility of connections remain limited in practice. Penetration remains lower in most rural and peri-urban areas due to relatively high costs and lack of infrastructure (see A2).

A major threat to internet access for Zimbabwe’s citizens is the debilitating economic crisis. As of May 2020, Zimbabwe’s economy had reached 786 percent inflation,4 and the crisis was subsequently worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and a three-month national lockdown.5 Foreign currency shortages complicate the situation as well. Access to the internet is also severely affected by incessant power shortages. State-owned power company Zimbabwe Electrical Supply Authority (ZESA Holdings) has imposed load-shedding of up to 18 hours per day.6

Telecommunications companies have warned that the lack of government investment in the information and communications technology (ICT) sector will result in the deterioration of services, adding that over the past three years the sector has not adequately upgraded or maintained its equipment.7 In the second half of 2019, POTRAZ reported the development of 16 new base transceiver stations, a key component of mobile networks.8 This reflects a serious decline in development from the previous coverage period; in the first quarter of 2019, POTRAZ reported 88 new base stations.9 The regulatory authority attributed the decline to “limited capital and other economic challenges.”10 In general, infrastructure is lacking, particularly in rural areas (see A2). Although POTRAZ released a notice about its plans to make more frequency bands available for broadband fixed wireless access (BFWA) in January 2019,11 no progress had been reported as of May 2020.

As of February 2020, the Ookla Speedtest Global Index reported average download speeds of 12.28 Mbps and upload speeds of 11.42 Mbps using fixed broadband, and average download speeds of 12.96 Mbps and upload speeds of 6.72 Mbps using mobile data.12

A2 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Is access to the internet prohibitively expensive or beyond the reach of certain segments of the population for geographical, social, or other reasons? 0.000 3.003

Access to the internet is sharply limited by Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, with internet users facing rising inflation and costs. Many poor rural communities struggle to access the internet and other telecommunications services. The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded an already bad economic situation, outpacing government attempts to address such problems.

The Alliance for Affordable Internet ranks Zimbabwe at 53 out of 60 low-income countries in terms of affordability of internet access.1In January 2020, telecommunications companies requested a 40 percent increase in tariffs, citing high inflation, and POTRAZ refused.2 POTRAZ approved several other price increases, including a February 2020 increase of 25 percent3 and a March 2020 increase of 48 percent.4

In March 2020, leading mobile network operator Econet announced that its weekly WhatsApp bundle of 140 MB would go up from $15 to $19 Zimbabwe dollars (US$0.05) and the daily 65MB bundle from $8 to $9 Zimbabwe dollars (US$0.02).5 Following May 2020 tariff approvals by POTRAZ, Econet once again increased its tariffs with 25G of data rising $400 to $1,300 Zimbabwe dollars (US$3.59) for a monthly package. The daily data bundle that used to cost $60 Zimbabwe dollars for 1200MB was raised to $130 Zimbabwe dollars (US$0.36).67

In April 2019, 25GB of data from the mobile network operator ZoL Fibrolinks was $32 Zimbabwe dollars (US$0.09) while 75GB was $95 Zimbabwe dollars (US$0.26).8 In April 2020, ZoL further increased prices following the devaluation of the Zimbabwe’s bond notes currency against the US dollar.9 POTRAZ reported a corresponding mobile internet and data usage decline of 33.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019.10

There remain significant disparities between urban and rural Zimbabweans’ access to internet. In December 2018, POTRAZ reported 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.11 A July 2018 Afrobarometer survey found that only 11 percent of rural Zimbabweans regularly use the internet, in contrast with almost 50 percent in urban areas.12

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.13 In August 2019, POTRAZ tendered funds for the construction of 100 base stations in uncovered rural areas using the Universal Services Fund. This initiative is seen as part of the larger project of expanding access to marginalized rural areas.14

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. By January 2020, 146 CICs had been established by POTRAZ, 107 of which were operational. POTRAZ reported that over 11,000 people across the country had received free ICT training through the centers.15 Usage of the centers is limited by digital literacy problems in most rural communities, as well as by a perception that access to the facilities will be restricted for people who are critical of the ruling ZANU–PF party.

A3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the government exercise technical or legal control over internet infrastructure for the purposes of restricting connectivity? 5.005 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 5 because the government-imposed network shutdown during protests in January 2019 was not repeated during the coverage period.

No connectivity restrictions were reported during the coverage period, though the government limited internet speeds during protests in July 2020, after the coverage period. Users experienced slowed connectivity on the state-owned network TelOne on July 30 and July 31, after President Mnangagwa and government officials reportedly ordered connectivity restrictions be imposed.1 Zimbabweans had planned protests for July 31 in response to the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as corruption and the economic crisis; the connectivity restrictions accompanied a broad crackdown on protestors and the opposition.2

Zimbabweans remain concerned about shutdowns after authorities imposed social media blocking and network shutdowns on January 15, 2019. Access was fully restored by January 24, after the High Court ruled the government’s actions to be illegal.3 The disruptions came as the government struggled to control a series of national protests organized 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

Some observers denounced the shutdown as an attempt to cover up security forces’ abuse of citizens during the protests (see B8).9 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,10 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.

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, which sets out a plan to centralize control over the country’s internet backbone.11 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 which was ultimately controlled by the government. 12 The section also mandates infrastructure sharing among telecommunications companies; private companies that have invested heavily in their own infrastructure decried this section as a form of “backdoor nationalization.” 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.”13 These plans had yet to be implemented during the coverage period.

A4 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are there legal, regulatory, or economic obstacles that restrict the diversity of service providers? 3.003 6.006

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 By the end of 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. For instance, Telecel, which is partially owned by the government, reportedly has yet to pay its US$137.5 million license fee to POTRAZ.5

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 internet and data traffic at 69.6 percent as of the third quarter of 2019.6 The partial state ownership of Telecel may pose viability problems for the firm;7 in 2018, the government said Telecel was one of the underperforming state-owned enterprises that could be subject to overhaul or privatization.8 Boardroom and ownership squabbles at the firm have resulted in a loss of market share which stood at 4.1 percent internet and data traffic in the third quarter of 2019, down from 4.3 percent in the previous quarter.9 In November 2019, POTRAZ announced that it is exploring licensing new mobile network operators, claiming that increasing companies could make services more available.10

License fees for mobile services in Zimbabwe were US$137.5 million in 2013,11 deterring new players from entering the market. By contrast, neighboring South Africa charges a telecommunications license fee of 100 million rand (US$7 million).12 According to Econet, license fee requirements have been used to undermine private companies, as the state-owned firms have not been forced to pay the full amount.13 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,14 though these claims have not been independently verified.15

A5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do national regulatory bodies that oversee service providers and digital technology fail to operate in a free, fair, and independent manner? 0.000 4.004

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 February 2020, the Zimbabwe government retroactively exempted Huawei from paying income tax from December 2009 to February 2020, extending an exemption granted in 2014.1 Commentators and civil society groups expressed concern about POTRAZ’s independence and about Huawei’s preferential treatment at the expense of other taxpayers in Zimbabwe.2

In October 2019, POTRAZ was commended for censuring Econet over its spamming of subscribers by advertisements for its social media platform, Sasai. POTRAZ stated that it had “taken note of the numerous complaints” from users about the constant messages they had received.3 Econet stopped the spamming after this intervention.

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 Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) lawsuit against the government that eventually ended the network shutdown (see A3).4

In 2016, 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.5 IAPs and ISPs are also subject to security screenings by the military, according to local sources.

B Limits on Content

Internet users increasingly take to online spaces to coordinate campaigns and engage with elected officials and candidates. A new regulation to fight misinformation about COVID-19 may increase self-censorship online. There were no further incidents of the government blocking social media platforms, as occurred during the January 2019 protests.

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content? 6.006 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 4 to 6 because the government-imposed blocking of social media platforms during protests in January 2019 was not repeated during the coverage period.

No blocking or filtering of internet content was observed during the coverage period. Social media and messaging platforms including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Tinder were blocked for about one week in January 2019.1 The block began on January 15 and continued until a court ordered providers to lift the blocks 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 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do state or nonstate actors employ legal, administrative, or other means to force publishers, content hosts, or digital platforms to delete content? 3.003 4.004

Civic and opposition leaders have deleted Facebook and Twitter posts in response to threats or arrests. For example, 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 Hwende received online threats and harassment from Mnangagwa’s supporters.1 Nevertheless, Hwende was arrested in March 2019 and charged with subversion (see C3).2 As of May 2020, his case is still before the courts.

The draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill (see C6), gazetted in May 2020, would protect service providers from liability for illegal content uploaded by users. The draft bill carries criminal penalties, including fines and imprisonment, for providers that fail to remove illegal content when ordered by a court or other public authority or upon discovery by the service provider.3

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do restrictions on the internet and digital content lack transparency, proportionality to the stated aims, or an independent appeals process? 1.001 4.004

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

Though the High Court ordered the government to restore connectivity during the January 2019 shutdown, it did not rule internet shutdowns illegal. Rather, it ruled that only President Mnangagwa had the authority to order connectivity restrictions; the minister of state for security had ordered the January shutdown.2 In their legal argument against the shutdown, MISA and ZLHR noted that the unlawful suspension of the sites exposed citizens and businesses to unnecessary losses of income, among other disproportionate harms.3 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.4 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.5

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do online journalists, commentators, and ordinary users practice self-censorship? 2.002 4.004

Self-censorship remains common among Zimbabweans, exacerbated by the government’s attempt to control information on the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.” A new policy, Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020, categorizes the publication of false news as a criminal offense (see C2).

POTRAZ’s statements on the use of social media have also been interpreted as attempts to instill self-censorship among users. In March 2020, the commander of the Zimbabwe National Army, Edzai Chimonyo, reportedly told military officials that social media was a threat to national security and that the military would begin monitoring social media.1 Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa also issued statements warning social media users against sharing false information on COVID-19, specifically with regard to the duration of the lockdown.2 Social media users and civil society sharply criticized Chimonyo’s statements for threatening free expression in Zimbabwe.3

B5 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are online sources of information controlled or manipulated by the government or other powerful actors to advance a particular political interest? 2.002 4.004

Online misinformation has become more prevalent in recent years, with a notable increase in falsehoods disseminated on social media during the military intervention in late 2017 that led to Robert Mugabe’s resignation, and the July 2018 election period.1 Misinformation relating to the COVID-19 pandemic has spread widely online in Zimbabwe.

Several stories amplifying falsehoods gained enough traction during the coverage period that the government addressed them directly. In October 2019, misinformation that the central bank was raiding foreign currency accounts was prevalent enough for the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe to address the rumor directly.2 Other false reports on social media included rumors in July 2019 that the vice president and 2017 coup leader General Constantine Chiwenga had died in China, where he had been receiving treatment. The government was forced to issue a statement denying the story that had circulated on WhatsApp and Twitter, which had included a fake letter allegedly from the speaker of parliament announcing the death of Chiwenga.3 During the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, various false stories were shared regarding the number of COVID-19 infections in Zimbabwe, numbers of deaths, and treatments available.4

ZANU–PF is believed to pay pro-government 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 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are there economic or regulatory constraints that negatively affect users’ ability to publish content online? 1.001 3.003

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 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the online information landscape lack diversity? 3.003 4.004

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. In its December 2019 third quarter report on the telecommunications sector, POTRAZ stated that WhatsApp is the most popular social media platform, followed by YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. These platforms contributed 39.1 percent of total internet usage.1 POTRAZ also adds that YouTube’s popularity is growing, in part because of the increasing amount of local content on the platform.2

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.3 Magamba also publishes interviews and runs a weekly satirical analysis of key national issues on Facebook.4 Other citizen journalism efforts on social media, such as @263 on Twitter, have developed into full-fledged online news outlets.5

In the period 2019 various online news agencies have been launched by junior and senior journalists, many of whom are frustrated over the lack of journalistic opportunities and the political capture of mainstream newspapers. Such platforms include Zimmorning Post and the Review and Mail.6

B8 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Do conditions impede users’ ability to mobilize, form communities, and campaign, particularly on political and social issues? 4.004 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 3 to 4 due to an increasingly vibrant environment for social and political issues on social media.

Social media is a key source of information for citizens and activists, and Zimbabweans frequently mobilize in protests and campaigns online. It is used to mobilize around human rights violations and counter government actions.

In August 2019, Samantha Kureya, a well-known political satirist and comedian, was abducted and tortured by suspected state agents (see C7).1 Social media users campaigned for her release using the hashtag #FreeGonyeti.2 Similar hashtags have been used for other Zimbabwean activists and dissidents who were detained or abducted.

Social media were used to mobilize the January 2019 protests and document human rights abuses associated with the authorities’ response to them. This apparently motivated the government’s attempts to block social media 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

Increasingly, Facebook and Twitter have become key sources of dialogue with political leaders, and members of parliament and city councils engage citizens on social media. All leading political parties and candidates in 2018 ran extensive social media campaigns,8 and new election-related hashtags emerged, such as #EDPfee, #NelsonChamisa, #ZimbaweDecides2018.9

C Violations of User Rights

A new regulation on misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic carries harsh penalties. A draft data protection bill may protect personal data but carries concerningly broad exemptions, particularly for the government. A prominent online comedian was abducted and tortured, likely by state security forces.

C1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 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? 2.002 6.006

The 2013 constitution provides for press freedom, freedom of expression, and access to information. These guarantees are contradicted by a number of laws,1 including by emergency regulations imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic (see C2). Another 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 ruled that the January 2019 internet shutdown was 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 Relatedly, the chief justice of the High Court announced in January 2020 that court proceedings in the public interest will be live-streamed, adding that this would enhance transparency and accountability of the judiciary.5

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities? 1.001 4.004

A number of laws criminalize online expression in Zimbabwe, including a law that seeks to limit misinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic.

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 as punishment.1 In a positive step, a landmark constitutional ruling in 2016 annulled Section 96 of this Act, which had criminalized defamation,2 though the vaguely defined “criminal insult” remains an offense under Section 95.

In April 2020, the Zimbabwe government passed Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020, Public Health (COVID-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment) Regulations, which seeks to combat misinformation around the COVID-19 pandemic. The law criminalizes the publication of “false news” about public officials involved in enforcing lockdown restrictions. Anyone arrested for an infraction would be prosecuted under the criminal code, with punishments of a fine of up US$10,000, up to 20 years imprisonment, or both.3

In May 2020, the Zimbabwe government gazetted a Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill (see C6).4 Section 164 of the bill would bar messages distributed via computer or information system with the intent to incite others “to commit acts of violence against any person or persons, or to cause damage to any property.” Violation of this section carries a fine of up to US$2,000, up to five years imprisonment, or both. The bill would impose similar criminal penalties for sending threatening messages, cyberbullying and harassment, and the transmission of intimate images without consent. The draft also imposes fines of up to US$10,000, up to ten years imprisonment, or both, for the creation or distribution online of “racist or xenophobic material” and “language that tends to lower the reputation or feelings of persons” because of their membership in a protected group.5

MISA–Zimbabwe raised concerns that the government could rely on this provision of the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill to inhibit constructive criticism and to prevent the expression of dissenting opinions, stifling citizen engagement and open debate.6

As of May 2020, the government was still considering the draft of the Computer Crime and Cyber-Crime Bill, which would criminalize certain forms of online speech and activity, such as speech that causes reputational harm, harassment and bullying, or incitement to “crimes against humanity.” The draft was approved by the cabinet in October 2019, after which it needed to be passed by parliament, which had not occurred as of May 2020.7 The call for such a law grew more vocal within the government after the January 2019 protests.89

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities? 3.003 6.006

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.

In May 2020, Robert Zakeyo and Admire Mupemhi were arrested and charged under Section 33(2)(b) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act for allegedly undermining the authority of the president. The two are said to have shared a video clip on WhatsApp lampooning President Mngangwa over his economic policies and calling him a frog. They were reported to the police by another member in the group. Both men were released pending charges as of May 2020.1

Chrispen Rambu, an opposition-party council member in Chipinge, was arrested in in April 2020 for insulting President Mngangwa in a WhatsApp message in which he called Mngangwa a fool. Rambu was charged under section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and was out on bail awaiting trial as of May 2020.2

Goodman Musariri, a member of the ruling ZANU–PF party, was also arrested in April 2020 for undermining the authority of the president. Musariri allegedly sent a WhatsApp message in a political party group saying that President Mngangwa had nothing to offer the country, had less than 18 years to live, and must resign and let his deputy take over. As of May 2020, Musariri was out on bail pending trail.3

In July 2020, after the coverage period, journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested after he published a series of Facebook posts alleging that the president’s son, Collins Mnangagwa, was involved in corrupt business dealings related to COVID-19 contracts. Chin’ono was charged with incitement to violence relating to photos and videos he had posted on Twitter about the antigovernment protests.4 As of August 2020, Chin’ono remained in detention alongside Jacob Ngarivhume, an opposition politician, who was arrested on similar charges.5

There were also arrests related to sharing coronavirus-related content online during the coverage period. In May 2020, Rena Takudzwa Muhambi and Prisca Gumbo were arrested for allegedly sharing misinformation about the coronavirus lockdown over WhatsApp. Both women were charged with publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state and were released on bail later that month.6

In April 2020, Lovemore Zvokusekwa was arrested after allegedly sharing a false statement on various WhatsApp groups about the lockdown on social media. He was charged with “publishing or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state” and faces up to 20 years of imprisonment. Zvokusekwa was released on bail pending trial later that month.7

Many of the individuals arrested during the previous coverage period saw their charges dropped, often due to the government failing to proceed with trial. Evan Mawarire, founder of the social media movement #ThisFlag, and ZCTU president Peter Mutasa were arrested in January 2019 and charged with subversion after posting comments in support of the protests organized by labor unions that month.8 The police cited a video calling for a general strike that Mutasa and Mawarire had recorded and circulated on social media as reason for their arrests.9 As of February and April 2020, the government had dropped the charges against Mawarire and Mutasa, respectively.1011

MDC member Jim Kunaka was also arrested and charged with subverting the government in January 2019 after allegedly inciting violence on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp during the January protests.12 The charges against Kunaka were dropped in March 2020.13

Several cases from the previous coverage period remain ongoing. The president of the Zimbabwe Youth Alliance Learnmore Magorimbo was similarly charged in January 2019 for inciting violence and subverting the government, having shared WhatsApp messages encouraging people to join the protests that month.14 The status of his case was unknown as of July 2020, though it was presumed to be before the courts.

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.15 In March 2020, Hwende, who was released on bail, was remanded to permit further investigation.16

C4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government place restrictions on anonymous communication or encryption? 3.003 4.004

User privacy and anonymity are compromised by SIM-card registration regulations implemented in 2011. These regulations 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 of 2013), subscribers must register with all telecommunications service providers by providing personal 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 the ZANU–PF party. 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, which raised suspicions that their privacy had been violated.

C5 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does state surveillance of internet activities infringe on users’ right to privacy? 2.002 6.006

There is a growing concern among human rights defenders, political opposition activists, and critics of the government about online surveillance, with some opposition leaders claiming that their online activities are under constant state surveillance. The secretary general of the main opposition party Movement for Democratic Change and member of parliament, Charlton Hwende, who is facing charges of subversion (see C3), told the media that he has reason to believe that his communications are under surveillance.1

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.2 In China, facial recognition technology has already been used to persecute human rights activists;3 analysts worry 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.4 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. In May 2019, deputy commissioner general Learn Ncube announced police had received the latest surveillance equipment from the government but did not specify what technology they gained.5

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.6

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.7

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 and strengthen the government’s surveillance capabilities by centralizing 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.8 Experts characterized the move as part of an effort to facilitate implementation of the drafted national policy.9 Provisions in the draft cybercrime bill that were 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 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are service providers and other technology companies required to aid the government in monitoring the communications of their users? 0.000 6.006

Zimbabwe’s legal framework requires service providers and technology companies to provide user information to the government. The government recently introduced a draft data protection bill, which would establish baseline protections for personal data but includes concerningly broad loopholes.

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. Whether the center was in operation during the coverage period was unclear.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 sentence of up to three years. Warrants allowing the monitoring and interception of communications are issued by the minister of information at their 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 of 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

In April 2020, Finance Minister Mthuli Ncube reported that the government had used a mathematical algorithm linked to mobile phone numbers and mobile money networks to select beneficiaries of COVID-19 welfare grants. This disclosure suggests that the government accessed personal details of mobile phone users without consent, possibly through telecommunications providers.10 As of May 2020, the funds had not been disbursed.11

In November 2019, the office of the president began recruiting staff to operationalize what it called the National Cyber Security Network Operations Centre, even as relevant legislation remained in Parliament as of May 2020.12

In May 2020, the government introduced a draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill.13 The law establishes a baseline set of data protections for data processed in Zimbabwe, with special safeguards for sensitive personal information, such as information about a person’s race, ethnicity, or sex life, and for health data, biometric data, and genetic data. Concerningly, the consent requirement for the processing of nonsensitive personal data includes a provision permitting that consent “may be implied,” significantly weakening such protections.14 The bill also has broad and poorly defined exceptions to the data protection framework, such as for processing “in the public interest” or national security.15 It also permits the Data Protection Authority to create new categories of exemption.16 Though the bill imposes some limits on the transfer of personal data outside of Zimbabwe to countries without an adequate standard of protection, the limits also include broad exemptions.17

Civil society groups sharply criticized the bill’s broad loopholes that may further entrench government surveillance.18 Zimbabwe’s legal framework permits the government to compel service providers to store personal information and provide it to the government under the Interception of Communications Act.

The bill designates POTRAZ, the telecommunications regulator, as both the Data Protection Authority and the Cyber Security Centre, in which capacity POTRAZ would coordinate national efforts to prevent cybercrime and oversee the enforcement the criminal provisions of the bill (see C2).19 Civil society groups raised concerns about the centralization of these authorities in the regulator, which lacks independence from the government (see A5).20

As of June 2020, the proposed law was before parliament awaiting public hearings and parliamentary debate, though debates were limited because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

C7 1.00-5.00 pts0-5 pts
Are individuals subject to extralegal intimidation or physical violence by state authorities or any other actor in retribution for their online activities? 2.002 5.005

Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to the abduction and torture of Samantha Kureya, an online comedian who has satirized state security forces, as well as the general environment of intimidation for online activities.

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

In August 2019, Samantha Kureya (also known as Gonyeti) a well-known political satirist and comedian with the online comedy channel Bustop TV, was abducted and tortured by suspected state agents. Kureya’s abductors threatened to kill her mother if Kureya reported the assault. She had previously been arrested for an online satire of Zimbabwean police.2

In June 2020, after the coverage period, a spokesperson for the ruling ZANU–PF party sharply criticized journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, after Chin’ono published a series of Facebook posts alleging that the president’s son, Collins Mnangagwa, was involved in corrupt business dealings related to COVID-19 contracts. Patrick Chinamasa, the ZANU–PF spokesperson, also demanded that journalists and newspapers cease writing “character assassinations” of the president’s family, labelling such reporting as false.3 Chin’ono was arrested in July 2020 (see C3).

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 himself to the authorities. He was arrested on charges of subversion related to his actions during the January strike and protests.4 Mahiya’s case was still before the courts as of January 2020.5

C8 1.00-3.00 pts0-3 pts
Are websites, governmental and private entities, service providers, or individual users subject to widespread hacking and other forms of cyberattack? 2.002 3.003

Cyberattacks targeting government websites regularly succeed. In November 2019, the website of the registrar general was hacked by an unknown party. The office is responsible for issuing passports and national identification cards.1 During the 2018 election period, hackers reportedly broke into ZEC servers and copied voters’ names and phone numbers, which they then posted on the internet.2 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.3

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 that month’s protests.4

On Zimbabwe

See all data, scores & information on this country or territory.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    29 100 partly free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    46 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Partly Free
  • Networks Restricted

    No
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes