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Zimbabwe bans WhatsApp, Twitter etc. for 7 days, critics say cover-up



Zimbabwe’s government has shut down social media for an entire week while the country is swept by deadly protests.

The government told Econet Wireless, the country’s largest provider, on Tuesday to cut off social media access, a ban which is still in place. Sites including Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp are all banned.

According to critics and activists, the ban is an attempt to suppress news and images from the unrest, which has so far left at least 12 people dead. The government says the ban is for security reasons.

People run at a protest as barricades burn during rainfall in Harare, Zimbabwe. January 14, 2019.
Reuters/Philimon Bulawayo

President Emmerson Mnangagwa more than doubled the price of petrol and diesel on January 14, and violent protests soon followed. So far, 12 people have been killed and 600 arrested, according to the BBC.

Zimbabwe shut down social media access on the second day of violence, January 15. It has been continuously unavailable since then.

During that period the government also closed off access to the internet as a whole. The first period lasted January 15 to January 17, and another, briefer total blackout took place on January 18.

Generic internet access was later restored, but access to WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook remains blocked.

Some people say they have been evading the blackout using virtual private networks (VPNs).

A Zimbabwean man speaks on his phone outside a branch of mobile service provider Econet Wireless in central Harare. Econet is the country’s largest provider of internet and has banned social media on government orders.

Critics of the violence say the internet has been blocked to stop images of police violence spreading.

Professor Johnathan Moyo, Zimbabwe’s former Minister of Higher & Tertiary Education, tweeted the blackout was “to cover up their atrocities.”

Doug Coltart, a lawyer in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, said: “The internet shutdown has been [used] to cover up a massive operation of repression,” the Guardian reported.

Zimbabwe’s Times reported that critics said the government “sought to prevent images of its heavy-handedness in dealing with protesters from being broadcast around the world.”

The Ministry of Information blamed the first blackout on Tuesday on internet “congestion,” and government spokesperson George Charamba told state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation that the second blackout on Friday was because the internet is “the tool used to coordinate the violence.”

A policeman stands guard as some of the people arrested during demonstrations over the hike in fuel prices, make their court appearance at the magistrates courts in Harare, Zimbabwe, Wednesday, January 16, 2019. 600 people have been arrested so far.
(AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Media Institute of Southern Africa submitted a lawsuit against the government on Monday over the internet blackout.

President Mnangagwa raised the price of fuel in an attempt to strengthen his government’s financial position by ending fuel subsidies. Zimbabwe’s economy has long been unstable, and the country is suffering from hyperinflation.

A gallon of gasoline increased from $5.60 a gallon to $15.20, and diesel went from $6.20 per gallon to $14.10, CNN reported.

The network said this means Zimbabwe the most expensive country in the world to fill a car.

On Sunday, President Mnangagwa tweeted he was cutting short a diplomatic trip in light of the protests.

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