Oppression goes online as government terrorizes social media activists
As “social media trolls” go after Beatrice Mutetwa, a top human rights advocate in Zimbabwe, she has chosen not to worry but instead focus on her job.
Arrested, beaten, detained, and at times tortured, once her dog was poisoned to death in a bid to intimidate, Mutetwa said the attacks had given her higher notches on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
“I don’t do social media precisely because I have no time for the trolls. I do get called names here and there, but as I know who I am, I don’t really care what some paid character assassin calls me,” Mutetwa told Anadolu Agency.
Douglas Coltart has also not escaped social media attacks.
“There are trolls that appear to be assigned to my Twitter account by the regime,” said the human rights lawyer. “Whenever I post anything, they are often the first to comment with ad hominem attacks including racial slurs, false claims about my supposed role during the war of independence which ended ten years before I was born,” Coltart told Anadolu Agency.
“It seems the purpose is usually to discredit what I am saying, especially if I post anything critical of the regime, or to intimidate me into self-censorship online,” he said.
Anti-government critics not spared
Even anti-government activists like Takudzwa Ngadziore, who is the president of the Zimbabwe National Students Union, have not been spared as the regime descends on critics via social media.
Job Sikhala, the national deputy chairperson of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC Alliance), has been followed on Twitter and jailed after posting about a Zimbabwean police officer who killed a child while enforcing coronavirus lockdown rules.
The same has happened to prominent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono who got arrested for posting the same on Twitter, although he denied the charges.
Student leaders targeted on social media
Yet for Takudzwa Ngadziore, who leads ZINASU, an anti-government tertiary students’ organization, the experiences have been colossal as government spies track him.
“On Social Media, I’m called names, labeled a terrorist, dark force, regime change agent, and at one time an apparently pseudo character threatened me, saying ‘you’re too young and know that your life is in our hands,'” Ngadziore told Anadolu Agency.
As individuals like Ngadziore are terrorized, he said, “Zimbabwe’s shrinking civic society space can also be denoted by how the regime has resorted to coordinating despotism on social media.”
For ZINASU Secretary-General Tapiwa Chiriga, the regime is all-out warring on social media critics at the behest of President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
“Since Mnangagwa publicly sent an instruction to his supporters to ‘fight’ us on social media, there has been an increased number of threats, trolls, and spam comments on our social media platforms,” said Chiriga.
Mnangagwa made headlines in 2019 after he called on supporters to fight his critics on social media.
Opposition leaders not scared
Since then, even opposition politicians like Jacob Ngarivhume have had no rest, falling under constant Twitter and Facebook attacks for anti-government posts.
“The moment l decide to take an aggressive stance against corruption in government, the whole system of the regime here is arrayed against me. I’m battered and butchered all over social media,” Ngarivhume told Anadolu Agency.
In fact, for many, like Ngarivhume, “this government has created a special unit to target and troll not only me but all human rights defenders on all social media platforms.”
Chiriga even fingered top government officials for spying on ordinary Zimbabweans on social media, subsequently attacking them by whatever means is at their disposal.
“What is also worrying is that senior government employees like the president’s spokesperson, George Charamba, are apparently trolling people like me on social media. In fact, insulting victims of state-sponsored abductions, hurling obscenities at activists,” said Chiriga.
Without any doubt, Chiriga said he “highly suspects that most prominent ghost trolls are operated by government employees on social media.”
Such is the confidence Ngarivhume has about the magnitude of oppression the regime has shifted to social media platforms.
“I have had a torrid time in the hands of this cruel government. They flood my Twitter handle whenever I post anything they don’t want the nation to know, calling me names, using abusive language, serving me with threats on a daily basis,” said Ngarivhume.
“Switching to all social media platforms, the Zimbabwean regime has ‘activated all their cyberbullying and violence structures to try and muffle my messages,'” he said.
Repression modified on social media
As Mnangagwa takes to social media modifying his art of suppression, he is “determined to close the remaining little democratic space and eliminate every single voice of dissent,” according to Obey Sithole, the opposition MDC Alliance Youth Assemble chairperson.
“From thwarting protests with a heavy hand, they have now criminalized freedom of expression as evidenced by heckling and arrests of citizens based on sentiments shared on social media,” Sithole told Anadolu Agency.
Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa director with the Africa Division at Human Rights Watch, said, “the Zimbabwe government seems scared of freedom of expression and has cracked down on social media to silence critics through the use of dubious or non-existent laws to arrest and prosecute activists.”
For Rashweat Mukundu, media researcher and Africa adviser at International Media Support, taking oppression to social media by the regime is a sign of desperation.
Threats shifted to social media by suspected government agents, according to Mukundu, are “attempts to control the social narratives in this country, more so the failures of the government to resolve the many challenges that this society is facing, be they economical and also the many human rights violations that are taking place.”
Yet to Mukundu, even as the regime fights left, right, and center to intimidate critics via social media, it remains a non-starter.
“The social media space platform has become a platform for critics of the government to organize themselves; it has become a platform which the government can’t easily control the issues that are discussed; hence concerted efforts to infiltrate social media platforms especially WhatsApp groups, Twitter and intimidate online users,” Mukundu told Anadolu Agency.
For his part, Tafadzwa Mugwadi, who is the director of Information in Zimbabwe’s governing party, the Zimbabwe Africa National Union-Patriotic Front, lashed out at anti-government social media activists.
“We are aware of the existence of a group of sworn sponsored critics of government leadership and the ruling party on social media and that they are working with vendetta newsrooms and characters to spread and spew fake news about Zimbabwe,” Mugwadi told Anadolu Agency.
Mugwadi also claimed that Zimbabwe’s anti-government social media activists use ghost accounts to amplify their voices.
Yet to the governing Zanu-PF information tsar, the social media activists will meet their match — ignored in fact.
“That will rise to nothing. We literally take no cognizance of them at all,” Mugwadi said.
Faced with mounting anti-government social media activism, the Southern African nation’s regime introduced a new bill in 2019 — Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill — to crush dissent.
A bill that can be interpreted very broadly will criminalize any communication between individuals or organizations and foreign governments if the country’s parliament approves the bill.