Zimbabwe

Partly Free
46
100
A Obstacles to Access 8 25
B Limits on Content 22 35
C Violations of User Rights 16 40
Last Year's Score & Status
46 100 Partly Free
Scores are based on a scale of 0 (least free) to 100 (most free)

header1 Overview

Zimbabwe’s total score remained the same during the coverage period, in which the government throttled internet speeds during mass protests in July 2020 and arrested prominent online critics. Journalists, activists, and ordinary internet users face prospective arrest for online activities that criticize President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government. Authorities seem poised to expand the scope of digital repression in Zimbabwe: Parliament was debating rights-restricting cybersecurity legislation during the coverage period, and there is growing evidence that the government has expanded its surveillance capacity. The unstable economy continues to lower many Zimbabweans’ standard of living and ability to access the internet.

The Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has dominated Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980, in part by carrying out severe and often violent crackdowns on the political opposition and critical media, and other sources of dissent. President Mnangagwa, who became president in 2017 when the military removed from office longtime president Robert Mugabe, was confirmed in office through a deeply flawed July 2018 election. The Mnangagwa administration has stepped up its repression and largely retained the legal, administrative, and security architecture it inherited from its predecessor. Endemic corruption, weak rule of law, and poor protections for workers and land rights remain among Zimbabwe’s challenges.

header2 Key Developments, June 1, 2020 - May 31, 2021

  • During mass antigovernment protests in July 2020, officials throttled internet speeds on the state-owned network TelOne and arrested online organizers, including prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono (see A3, B8, and C3).
  • Parliament continued to debate the draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill, which would impose new criminal penalties on online speech and create new protections for personal data, albeit with concerningly broad loopholes (see C2 and C6).
  • A technical investigation identified the Zimbabwean government as a likely client of the surveillance technology company Circles (see C5).
  • Sources and leaked documents indicated that security forces had surveilled or planned to surveil the communications of prominent Zimbabweans, including former vice president Kembo Mohadi and high-profile opposition figures (see C5).
  • A court ruled against a police warrant that demanded access to service provider Econet’s mobile money subscriber database, a strong sign for privacy rights (see C6).
  • During the July 2020 protests, hackers breached the websites of seventeen government ministries and departments, including the Defense Ministry and National Army (see C8).

A Obstacles to Access

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. 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).

In March 2021, the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) reported an internet penetration rate of 60.9 percent, an improvement from the rate of 59.9 percent reported in December 2020.12 By contrast, the latest available data from other sources point to a lower rate of internet penetration: 33.4 percent as of 2021 according to the Digital 2021 report3 and 27 percent as of 2017 according to the International Telecommunications Union.4 POTRAZ reported a 2.8 percent increase in mobile phone penetration, from 87.7 to 90.5 percent recorded in its industry performance report in 2020.5 In the past, the government had reported 100 percent mobile phone penetration, likely because many users had more than one subscription.

A major threat to internet access for Zimbabwe’s citizens is the debilitating economic crisis. Though inflation declined during the coverage period—to 161.91 percent in May 2021 from 837.53 percent in July 20206--incomes remain depressed and the costs of goods, including internet service, remain unstable.7 Foreign currency shortages further complicate the crisis.

Access to the internet is also severely affected by incessant power shortages; for instance, equipment failures at the state-owned power company Zimbabwe Electrical Supply Authority (ZESA Holdings) have created power shortages throughout urban centers.8

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 equipment has not been adequately upgraded or maintained.9 In the second half of 2020, POTRAZ reported the development of 37 new base transceiver stations supporting “long-term evolution” (LTE) technology, a key component of mobile networks.10 This figure represents a significant rise in telecommunications infrastructure development; infrastructure investments had decreased in recent years. Of the new base stations, only 10 new stations supporting LTE networks with fourth-generation (4G) technology and 8 stations using third-generation (3G) technology were deployed in rural areas, raising concerns about the low pace of deployment of high-speed internet infrastructure.11

Zimbabwean internet users experienced several connectivity disruptions because of unreliable infrastructure during the coverage period. In February 2021, subscribers of NetOne experienced slowdowns across the provider’s data services.12 On December 9, 2020, subscribers to ZOL Zimbabwe faced a service disruption for several hours.13 In response to the December disruption, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe, an organization that advocates for media freedom and freedom of expression, called for the government to address the country’s infrastructure challenges, a result of a lack of investment in maintenance and upgrades.14 Although POTRAZ announced plans to make more frequency bands available for rural broadband fixed wireless access (BFWA) in January 2019,15 no progress had been reported as of May 2021.

The Ookla Speedtest Global Index reported average download speeds of 16.8 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds of 16.93 Mbps on fixed broadband as of May 2021 and average mobile download speeds of 14.93 Mbps and upload speeds of 7.74 Mbps in March 2021, the latest available data.16 The April 2021 SpeedCheckers report states that Econet has the fastest average mobile speeds in Zimbabwe, with a download speed of 7.56 Mbps and upload speed of 4.97 Mbps.17

In February 2021, 10 civil society organizations, led by the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, submitted a petition to POTRAZ to address the country’s poor broadband services. The organizations urged POTRAZ “to ensure a secure network and internet stability in Zimbabwe during this COVID-19 national lockdown.” They also expressed concern at the continued marginalization of rural communities from internet access due to limited infrastructure and requested that POTRAZ’s Universal Services Fund be used to promote access in rural areas (see A2).18

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 the country’s economic crisis, outpacing government attempts to address such issues. Econet, the biggest telecommunications service provider in Zimbabwe, increased its voice, data and SMS prices by 20 percent in December 2020, reportedly to shield the company from rising inflation and operational costs.1 By March 2021, Econet had increased the cost of its monthly internet access data package of 100 MB from ZWL$84 (US$0.23) to ZWL$101 (US$0.28).2 Internet service providers also offer special social media access data bundles, such as Econet’s bundle priced at ZWL$25 (US$0.07) for 20MB of Facebook data, 10 MB of Snapchat data, and 20 MB of data for Sasai Bouquet, an Econet-owned chat platform.3 These increases have made internet access increasingly unaffordable to many, even though POTRAZ has acknowledged key role online media play in Zimbabwe’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.4

The Alliance for Affordable Internet ranked Zimbabwe at 55 out of 72 low-income countries in terms of affordability of internet access in 2020.5

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.6 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.7 As of March 2021, two-thirds of Zimbabwe’s schools lacked internet access, mostly in rural areas.8

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.9 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.10

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. POTRAZ planned to set up 210 CICs; by mid-2020, 171 of these had been commissioned and 107 operationalized.11 POTRAZ reported that over 11,000 people across the country had received free ICT training through the centers.12 Usage of the centers is limited by digital literacy challenges in most rural communities, as well as by the public 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? 4.004 6.006

Score Change: The score declined from 5 to 4 because the government throttled internet speeds on the state-owned network TelOne during protests in July 2020.

The government limited internet speeds during protests in July 2020. 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 reports of high-level corruption, and the economic crisis; the connectivity restrictions accompanied a broad crackdown on protestors and the opposition.2

Authorities previously 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 the country’s 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 2019 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) had 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 mandated 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 2020, 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, has reportedly yet to pay its $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 the number of companies could make services more widely available.10

License fees for mobile service providers in Zimbabwe are US$137.5 million for a 20-year period.11 Operators also pay 2 percent of their annual gross turnover and 0.5 percent towards the Universal Service Fund,12 potentially deterring new players from entering the market. By contrast, neighboring South Africa charges a telecommunications license fee of 100 million rands (US$7 million).13 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.14 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,15 though these claims have not been independently verified.16

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 with 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 after the intervention, though the company faced another lawsuit for spamming customers during the coverage period. Harare lawyer Sikhumbuzo Mpofu argued that Econet’s unsolicited messages about the COVID-19 pandemic and other promotions were an invasion of privacy; in February 2021, the High Court issued an interim order requiring Econet to cease sending unsolicited messages to its clients.4

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).5

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

B Limits on Content

B1 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does the state block or filter, or compel service providers to block or filter, internet content, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 6.006 6.006

No blocking or filtering of internet content was observed during the coverage period, though websites and social media platforms have been blocked in recent years during politically sensitive moments.

In January 2019, social media and messaging platforms—including Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit, and Tinder—were blocked for about one week during contentious protests (see A3).1 The block began on January 15 and continued until a court ordered providers to lift the blocks on January 21.2 Searches for and use of virtual private networks (VPNs) surged during this period, as individuals sought ways to circumvent the restrictions.3

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, particularly material that is protected by international human rights standards? 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 Hwende was arrested in March 2019 and charged with treason; in September 2020, the case against him was dropped (see C3).2

The draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill (see C6), published by the government in May 2020, would protect service providers from liability for illegal content uploaded by users. The draft law 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 state security minister 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 about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The arrest of human rights defenders and opposition figures over their online activism, as well as the government’s threatening statements about posting critical content, increased individuals’ hesitancy to express their opinions online during the coverage period, according to local observers. In January 2021, leading opposition figure Job Sikhala claimed the Facebook page under the name “Job Wiwa Sikhala” was not his, after being arrested on allegations of communicating falsehoods on that page (see C3).1 A new policy, Statutory Instrument 83 of 2020, categorizes the publication of false news as a criminal offense (see C2).

Statements by the Ministry of Home Affairs, military, police, and senior government officials have also been interpreted as attempts to instill self-censorship among internet users. In January 2021, Home Affairs Secretary Aaron Nhepera said that false information about the COVID-19 pandemic, including false reports about the deaths of government officials, has had “the effect of destabilizing the nation.”2 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.3 Information Minister Monica Mutsvangwa also issued statements warning social media users against sharing false information about COVID-19, specifically regarding the duration of the lockdown.4 Social media users and civil society organizations criticized Chimonyo’s statements for threatening free expression in Zimbabwe.5

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

Reports suggest that ZANU–PF pays progovernment commentators to defend the administration and attack opponents on social media. In 2019, Mnangagwa’s spokesperson George Charamba appeared to imply that the ZANU-PF paid a prominent progovernment Twitter user.1 Addressing ZANU-PF youth activists in March 2018, Mnangagwa urged them to “dominate” the social media space ahead of the elections.2 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.3 The trend continued during the coverage period, with human rights activists and opposition figures reporting attacks on social media by accounts they believe are linked to the ZANU-PF.4

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 recently formed 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 and reliability? 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. The Digital 2021 report recorded 1.3 million social media accounts active in Zimbabwe as of January 2021.1 In its December 2019 third quarter report on the telecommunications sector, POTRAZ stated that WhatsApp was the most popular social media platform, followed by YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. These platforms contributed 39.1 percent of total internet usage.2 POTRAZ also added that YouTube’s popularity is growing, in part because of the increasing amount of local content on the platform.3

Numerous citizen initiatives have taken advantage of the increased access to ICT networks, such as youth ICT network Magamba’s @OpenParlyZW Twitter account that monitors parliamentary activities.4 Magamba also publishes interviews and runs a weekly satirical analysis of key national issues on Facebook.5 Other citizen journalism efforts on social media, such as @263 on Twitter, have developed into full-fledged online news outlets.6

In recent years, various online news agencies have been launched by junior and senior journalists, many of whom were frustrated over the lack of journalistic opportunities and the political capture of mainstream newspapers. Such platforms include NewsHawks, an investigative journalism platform associated with senior Zimbabwean journalists.7

Online misinformation has become more prevalent in recent years, with a notable increase in falsehoods disseminated on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, including from government officials. Fact-checking organizations like ZimFact attempted to limit the spread of false information about COVID-19 by partnering with fact-checkers across the region.8 The proliferation of misinformation about the pandemic, COVID-19's health effects, and government responses to the pandemic have harmed Zimbabweans’ ability to access reliable information online.9

Several stories amplifying falsehoods gained enough traction during the coverage period that the government addressed them directly. In January and February 2021, the government addressed citizens’ fears that the vaccine from the company Sinopharm was not fully developed, as social media stories questioning the efficacy of the vaccine proliferated.10 In June 2020, the government was forced to issue a statement denying social media stories that a coup to topple President Emmerson Mnagangwa was imminent.11 The Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe issued a statement in January 2021 to deny online rumors12 that it was introducing higher Zimbabwe dollar denominations as inflation continued to rise.13

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

Social media is a key source of information for citizens and activists, and Zimbabweans frequently mobilize in protests and campaigns online. During the coverage period, Zimbabweans organized on social media to criticize human rights abuses, poor governance, and corruption.

Protests against the Zimbabwe government were organized under hashtag #ZimbabweLivesMatter, which received international support.1 Journalist Hopewell Chin’ono launched a viral social media campaign with a rap song called #DemLoot, which called for an end to government.2 Other online campaigns included the #SaveChilonga movement to protest the government’s displacement of more than 13,000 Shangani people, an Indigenous minority group, from their communal land in Chilonga; the land was to be developed into farmland for cattle feed.3

President Mnangagwa has referred to the online campaigns against human rights abuses and corruption as “a cyber-war on our country in pursuit of a regime change agenda.”4 People active on social media during the protests have been targeted for arrest, like Chin’ono and MDC leader Jacob Ngarivhume, both of whom were charged for using social media to incite violence (see C3).5 Social media users campaigned for their release online.6

C Violations of User Rights

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

Zimbabwe’s courts have been inundated with many cases involving online journalists, such as Hopewell Chin’ono, and political activists arrested over their online activities (see C3). In a positive sign for judicial independence, a High Court judge invalidated section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, a provision used to charge many of those arrested for their online activities (see C2).3 However, human rights defenders and opposition political groups have raised concerns that the judiciary is complicit in human rights violations. Journalists like Chin’ono have faced long periods of pretrial detention, political activists have been denied bail, and others have been brought to court in leg irons or denied medical attention while in prison.4

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there laws that assign criminal penalties or civil liability for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 1.001 4.004

Several 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 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 2021, the High Court invalidated Section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which criminalizes publishing or communicating falsehoods prejudicial to the state, on the grounds that the Constitutional Court struck it down under the former constitution.3

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 to US$10,000, up to 20 years imprisonment, or both.4

In May 2020, the Zimbabwe government published the draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill (see C6).5 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 law 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.6

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.7

As of May 2021, the government was still considering the draft 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 2020.8 Government officials grew more vocal in their advocacy for such a law after the January 2019 protests.9

The Zimbabwe government is considering introducing a so-called “Patriot Bill,” which would criminalize what the government calls campaigns against one’s country. According to ZANU-PF officials, the law would prohibit “false statements influencing foreign governments” and “any other such conduct aimed at undermining the country.”10 Human rights defenders says the law is aimed at silencing government critics, including online activists.11 The draft Patriot Bill had not been released as of July 2021.

C3 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Are individuals penalized for online activities, particularly those that are protected under international human rights standards? 3.003 6.006

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

In January 2021, Vongai Nomatter Chiminya and Devine Panashe Maregere were arrested and charged for communicating false statements under Section 31(a)(i) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act. The couple allegedly sent a message that Mnangagwa had died after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to a WhatsApp group. They were released on bail.1 The status of the case was unknown as of July 2021.

In December 2020, MDC lawyer Thabani Mpofu was arrested in relation to a tweet that criticized the fast-food outlet Chicken Inn. Mpofu’s tweet called Chicken Inn “immoral, unethical and completely senseless” for releasing a video that purportedly proved ZANU-PF claims that three prominent MDC activists had faked their own abduction and torture (see C5 and C7). Mpofu was charged with obstruction of justice, then issued a warning and released.2

In August 2020, student Hither Mpambwa was arrested in Kariba and charged under Section 33(2)(b) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act for allegedly undermining the authority of the president in a WhatsApp message she shared in a community group. Mpambwa allegedly criticized the president’s state of the nation address as lacking patriotism. She was released on bail.3 The charges against Mpambwa were dropped in October.4

Prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested on three separate occasions during the coverage period for his online activities. On July 20, 2020, Chin’ono was arrested and subsequently charged with incitement to violence relating to photos and videos he had posted on Twitter about the anti-government protests. Commentators raised concerns that Chin’ono was arrested in retaliation for a series of June 2020 Facebook posts alleging that the president’s son, Collins Mnangagwa, was involved in corrupt business dealings related to the government contracts for medical supplies to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.5 Chin’ono was released from jail on bail on September 2, 2020, alongside Jacob Ngarivhume, an opposition politician who was also arrested on similar charges in July. Both Chin’ono and Ngarivhume were banned from using social media for their activism as part of their bail conditions.6 On November 3, 2020, Chin’ono was arrested for allegedly violating the terms of his bail; he had posted on Twitter sharing concerns that the chief justice intervened in the initial decision to deny him bail when he and Ngarivhume were first arrested in July 2020.7 Chin’ono was subsequently granted bail on November 20, under the condition that he not post on Twitter in ways that would “obstruct justice.”8 He was arrested again on January 8, 2021, for allegedly publishing false information when he wrote on Twitter that a police officer had beaten a child to death while enforcing COVID-19 restrictions.9 He was granted bail on January 27, 2021, again subject to limits on his Twitter usage.10 In April 2021, the High Court threw out charges brought against Chin’ono in his January arrest in a ruling that invalidated Section 31(a)(iii) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (see C2); the two other cases against Chin’ono were still pending as of June 2021.11

Two MDC officials, spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere and parliamentarian Job Sikhala, were arrested in January 2021 in the days after Chin’ono’s third arrest and also charged for publishing falsehoods on social media about the same story of a police officer killing a child.12 The charges against Sikhala and Mahere were dismissed by the High Court in April 2021. 13

In October 2020, Victor Majoni was charged with insulting the president for sharing a video through WhatsApp criticizing Mnangagwa for calling on Zimbabweans to “pray and fast” for relief from the COVID-19 pandemic.14 The status of his case was unknown as of July 2021.

Several cases from 2019 and early 2020 remained ongoing or were presumed to be ongoing as of June 2021. Chrispen Rambu, an opposition party council member in Chipinge, was arrested in April 2020 for calling President Mngangwa a fool in a WhatsApp message. Rambu was charged under section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and was released on bail awaiting trial as of May 2020.15 The status of his case was unknown as of July 2021.

In May 2020, Robert Zakeyo and Admire Mupemhi 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 2020.16 The status of their cases was unknown as of July 2021.

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. Musariri was released on bail pending trial in May 2020;17 he appeared in court in May 2021.18

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.19 The status of their cases was unknown as of July 2021.

In April 2020, Lovemore Zvokusekwa was arrested after allegedly sharing a false statement on various WhatsApp groups about the government’s COVID-19 lockdown. 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.20 The status of his case was unknown as of July 2021.

Some of the individuals arrested in 2019 and early 2020 saw their charges dropped, often due to the government failing to proceed with the prosecution. Opposition MDC Alliance Secretary General member Jim Kunaka, who had been arrested and charged with subverting the government in January 2019 after allegedly inciting violence on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp during the January protests, had his charges dropped in September 2020.21

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 details about their personal identity 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 ZANU-PF. Both the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) and mobile service providers 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 recipients by name, including many who were not party members, suggesting that individuals’ privacy rights 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

Concerns that the Zimbabwean government is increasing its surveillance capacity were substantiated during the coverage period, with new evidence of spyware purchases and cases of purported communications surveillance.

An investigation released by the Citizen Lab in December 2020 identified the Zimbabwean government as a likely customer of Circles, a surveillance company that enables the monitoring of calls, texts, and cell phone geolocation by exploiting weaknesses in mobile telecommunications infrastructure.1 In February 2021, NewsHawks alleged that then-vice president Kembo Mohadi was targeted by Circles spyware amid internal power struggles within ZANU-PF, citing anonymous intelligence sources; audio recordings of Mohadi’s numerous affairs had been released publicly, eventually prompting his resignation.2

In May 2020, parliamentarian Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri, and Netsai Marova—three MDC youth activist leaders—alleged they were arrested during a protest, abducted, tortured, and sexually assaulted by security forces. In June, Home Affairs Minister Kazembe Kazembe challenged their allegations, releasing an analysis of their mobile phones’ geolocation data that showed they were not at the location of their alleged arrest.3 The veracity of the data is unclear, as is how the government obtained the data—whether through surveillance technology or by accessing data from a telecommunications provider. Prosecutors pursued legal action against Mamombe, Chimbiri, and Marova for making false accusations, and officials have repeatedly detained them, in what seems to be an attempt to reduce the credibility of their allegations.4 The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission corroborated the torture allegations in a May 2020 preliminary investigation shortly after the three women were released.5 During their trial in September 2020, the activists successfully sought a court order to compel Econet to release their records, including location information, from their mobile phones during the period of their abduction; the records have not been made public.6 Court proceedings in the case remain ongoing as of July 2021.7

Human rights defenders, political opposition activists, and critics of the government have expressed growing concern about online surveillance, with some opposition leaders claiming that their online activities are under constant state surveillance. Parliamentarian Charlton Hwende, the secretary general of the MDC who faced treason charges in 2019, claimed his communications were under surveillance.8

In March 2018, the government partnered with Chinese company CloudWalk Technology to implement a nationwide facial recognition program, underscoring concerns about unchecked government surveillance.9 In China, facial recognition technology has already been used to persecute human rights activists;10 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.11 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 of the police Learn Ncube announced the receipt of advanced surveillance equipment, though he did not specify which technologies in particular.12

In October 2020, a document attributed to Zimbabwean security services was leaked to NewsDay, accusing several online journalists and citizens who use online media for activism of seeking to sabotage the government. In the document, officials list the names of accused individuals leading online campaigns and calls on state security agents to place their online activities under constant watch. Officials associate the success of these tactics with the arrests of Hopewell Chin’ono and Jacob Ngarivhume (see B8 and C3), noting “a critical need to widen the net.”13

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 ostensibly suspicious communications.14

The 2015 draft National Policy for Information and Communication Technology, if implemented, would enhance the government’s authority over online 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.15 Experts characterized the move as part of an effort to facilitate implementation of the drafted national policy.16 Provisions in the draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill may also intrude on citizens’ right to privacy by authorizing interception, search, and seizure of electronic devices, without sufficient oversight to prevent abuse (see C6).17

C6 1.00-6.00 pts0-6 pts
Does monitoring and collection of user data by service providers and other technology companies infringe on users’ right to privacy? 1.001 6.006

Score Change: The score improved from 0 to 1 because a court invalidated a police warrant seeking access to the subscriber database of telecommunications provider Econet that would have infringed on subscribers’ privacy rights.

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.

In February 2021, Mnangagwa launched the National Data Centre, a data storage infrastructure project that the government plans to link to the national identity registration system and Zimbabwe’s planned smart city network, which will be equipped with surveillance technology.1 Civil society organizations like MISA Zimbabwe raised concerns about the misuse of personal data by the Centre, noting the lack of a strong data protection law.2 Others have criticized the involvement of Chinese companies in the project, including Inspur, an information technology company with links to the Chinese military.3

In September 2020, the High Court invalidated a warrant for the telecommunications provider Econet’s subscriber database due to privacy concerns. Zimbabwean police had sought access to the database in pursuit of illegal dealers of foreign currency, who police alleged were using Econet’s mobile money transfer platform Ecocash.4 The High Court had previously issued a stay on the warrant in response to an application from Econet; MISA and the ZLHR also filed an application arguing that the police accessing Econet’s database of 11 million subscribers would have infringed on customers’ right to privacy.5 A 2014 amendment to the 2013 Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations (Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013) requires law enforcement agents to obtain a court order or a warrant to request information from the central subscriber information database.6 The 2013 law requires 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.7 Some observers have noted that the 2014 amendment 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

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.10 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.11 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 information minister at their discretion. Consequently, there is no adequate judicial oversight or other independent safeguard against abuse,12 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.13 Section 88 of the act also obligates the companies to report any communications with “offensive” or “threatening” content.14

In May 2020, the government introduced a draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill.15 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.16 The draft legislation also has broad and poorly defined exceptions to the data protection framework, such as for processing “in the public interest” or national security.17 It also permits the Data Protection Authority to create new categories of exemption.18 Though the law would impose some limits on the transfer of personal data outside of Zimbabwe to countries without an adequate standard of protection, those limits would also include broad exemptions.19

Civil society groups sharply criticized the draft law’s broad loopholes that may further entrench government surveillance.20 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 draft 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 law (see C2).21 Civil society groups raised concerns about the centralization of these authorities in the regulator, which lacks independence from the government (see A5).22

In July 2021, after the coverage period, the draft Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill was approved by committees in the National Assembly and referred to the Parliamentary Legal Committee, where it will be reviewed for constitutionality.23

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 relation to their online activities? 2.002 5.005

Online journalists and ICT users face regular harassment, intimidation, violence, and torture 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 September 2020, Nickson Mpofu was abducted and severely tortured after posting on Facebook about government corruption involving a rental car company linked to the abduction and torture of student Tawanda Muchehiwa. 2

Throughout the coverage period, ZANU-PF supporters harassed parliamentarian Joana Mamombe, Cecilia Chimbiri and Netsai Marova—all MDC youth leaders—on social media for their allegations that they were arrested and tortured by security forces (see C5). Government officials used social media to delegitimize the claims of the three activists; for instance, in September 2020, officials released video footage of Mamombe at OK Zimbabwe, a shopping center, obtained through a court order in an attempt to seek sanctions against Mamombe for missing a court date.3

In June 2020, 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 government contracts for medical supplies to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic. Patrick Chinamasa, the ZANU-PF spokesperson, also demanded that journalists and newspapers cease writing what he called “character assassinations” of the president’s family.4 Chin’ono was subsequently arrested three times between July 2020 and January 2021 (see C3).5 In July 2020, Chin’ono stated that his life was in danger after receiving several threats from government officials for his online activism and reports.6

In February 2021, ZANU-PF supporters besieged the office of MDC vice president Tendai Biti and threatened to kill Biti over his social media posts.7 A ZANU-PF spokesperson criticized Biti in January for tweeting that the government should take responsibility for every COVID-19 death in Zimbabwe.8

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.9

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 July 2020, 17 government ministries and departments website were hacked by Ghost Squad Hackers, a politically motivated group of international hackers. Some of the websites, including those of the Defense Ministry, National Army, and the Surveyor General’s office were briefly inaccessible, though whether data was exfiltrated remains unclear.1

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.2

On Zimbabwe

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

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  • Global Freedom Score

    28 100 not free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    46 100 partly free
  • Freedom in the World Status

    Not Free
  • Networks Restricted

    Yes
  • Websites Blocked

    No
  • Pro-government Commentators

    Yes
  • Users Arrested

    Yes