Internet shutdown as security forces crackdown on protests: Protesters and citizens killed

Peaceful Assembly

On 14th January 2019, protests broke out in Bulawayo and Harare over a sharp hike in fuel prices introduced by the government. In Harare, protestors barricaded roads and burnt tires, while protestors in Bulawayo were reported to have thrown stones at the police. The general populace stayed home in response to a three day stay away called for by the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions in response to the fuel rise. Two days prior, President Emmerson Mnagangwa had announced a 150% fuel price increase saying it was intended to ease access to fuel which has been in short supply over the last few months. The following day, it was reported that at least three people were shot dead and scores injured as security forces cracked down on the escalating protests, violently dispersing protesters.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights said 13 people had sustained gunshot wounds in and around Harare on 14th January while at least 200 people were arrested.

Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Southern Africa, said:

“The Zimbabwean authorities must ensure that people are able to express their views freely and safely and must promptly investigate in an independent and impartial manner allegations of police shootings of protesters…“The police must use force only when strictly necessary. Even then, they must exercise restraint at all times and use the lowest level of force needed. Firearms may only be used as a last resort, and when strictly unavoidable, to protect life.”

US senators urged the Zimbabwean government to respect the rights of protestors, and to restore access to social media, internet and telephone services. In a statement issued on 16th January they said:

“We are deeply troubled by reports of deaths, widespread arrests, beatings, and harassment of protestors by security forces of the Government of Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean people have the constitutional right to protest peacefully and express themselves regarding developments in their country. Government officials and security forces must respond with professionalism and respect for human rights and the rule of law. We also call on the Government of Zimbabwe to rescind the directive ordering communication service providers to cut or restrict access to social media, internet, and telephone services. Such abrogations of constitutional and basic legal rights are not what the people of Zimbabwe were promised under President Mnangagwa. Instead, the government should work to meet the basic economic and social needs of its people. We strongly urge the Zimbabwean authorities to resolve the current situation through dialogue and non-violent, fully legal means, and for protesters to exercise their constitutional rights peacefully. Under no circumstances should the Zimbabwean government disregard the constitutional rights of its citizens, engage in the illegal suppression of expression and assembly, or employ the disproportionate use of force or extralegal violence to respond to the current situation.”

In the aftermath of of the mass protests on 14th January, the army and police forcefully entered private residences and extracted, arrested and assaulted citizens. On 16th January, armed Zimbabwean police officers arrested pastor Evan Mawarire in connection to the protests. His lawyer told Reporters that the police intended to charge him with inciting public violence through social media.

Expression

Following the protests, Zimbabwe's mobile phone networks and internet were partially shut down. Access to social media sites such as Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter was blocked while service providers such as Econet and TelOne went ahead to close down entire access to the internet.

According to reports received by MISA Zimbabwe, Journalists were also caught up in the protests and running battles between protestors and security agents. John Cassim, a foreign correspondent, was harassed by a crowd of protestors near 4th Street bus terminus in Harare. Freelance journalist Mqondisi Nzipho was also detained by police in Bulawayo as he covered the protests, despite displaying his media accreditation information to them.