HARARE – President Emmerson Mnangagwa has said the blockade on Internet connections and social media services imposed during violent protests against the 150 percent fuel price hike does not mean he was intolerant to criticism but was a key decision meant to temporarily restrict access to prevent the wanton looting and violence, and to help restore calm.
Mnangagwa said the government had to consider all options to control protests that turned violent, saying social media was being used by criminal elements to commit crimes.
On January 15, authorities blocked the Internet. Some services were briefly restored on January 16.
By January 18, the Internet was once again inaccessible and the block was extended to include email communication.
Zimbabwe’s biggest mobile operator, Econet Wireless, said then the government had ordered it to suspend its services until further notice.
Rights groups slammed the move saying it severely limited the ability of human rights defenders to document and expose human rights violations during the protests and furthermore put them at increased risk by restricting their ability to communicate.
Mid-afternoon on January 18, Econet Wireless issued another statement saying that they had received “a further instruction under ministerial directive to open access to the generality of Internet services except for specified social media applications.”
Government had restored a partial service, but maintaining a blackout on social media apps such as Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter
Rights groups such as Front-Line Defenders strongly condemned “the severe restrictions to freedom of expression” suggesting Mnangagwa was against free speech.
But Mnangagwa said on microblogging site Twitter on Friday: “I believe deeply in freedom of speech and expression, and these rights are enshrined in our Constitution.
You only need to look at a newspaper or read my social media comments to see the level of criticism I get, and I welcome this.
“What we saw last week was the social networks being used to plan and incite disorder and to spread misinformation leading to violence. In response, the decision was taken to temporarily restrict access to prevent the wanton looting and violence, and to help restore calm.
“I am aware of the criticism of this decision, and we did not take it lightly. The measures were temporary, tactical and aimed at restoring the peace. This has been achieved, all restrictions have been removed and I look forward to continuing to freely engage on social media.”
Internet services were only restored after the High Court ordered the government to restore all service in full, ruling that the State Security minister Owen Ncube overstepped his authority when he issued the decree.
The High Court ruling came after press freedom group Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) Zimbabwe chapter and the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZHLR) had filed a joint urgent application arguing the Internet shutdown was an abuse of the Interception of Communications Act and did not provide provisions empowering government to totally shutdown the net.