Zimbabwe police warn against crackdown on ‘cyberharassment’ of public officials | Social Media News

Threat of arrest by the police decried as an attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in a country in crisis.

Harare, Zimbabwe – Rights activists in Zimbabwe have denounced a police statement warning social media users against what they called “cyberbullying” of government officials, calling it an attempt to muzzle free speech in the country .

In its statement on Monday, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) said arrests were “imminent” for unnamed “suspects” who “made threats and harassed government officials” on social media.

“The ZRP cautions individuals and groups against committing criminal acts through the cyberbullying of government officials who will fulfill their constitutional and legal obligations in terms of providing services to Zimbabweans,” the statement read. .

Zimbabweans are currently bearing the brunt of an economic crisis characterized by hyperinflation which has eroded the value of their incomes and unemployment which has reached around 90%.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa blames Western sanctions, among others, for the country’s problems, saying the punitive measures have “crippled” the country’s development.

But Mnangagwa, who has Facebook and Twitter accounts, is often the target of derogatory comments from disgruntled Zimbabweans when he posts on social media.

Government officials have also not been spared criticism over the way the 78-year-old has steered the country’s economy since seizing power in a military coup in November 2017.

The police statements came days after Patrick Chinamasa, acting spokesman for ZANU-PF, the party that has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1980, alleged that colonial masters Zimbabwe were using social media to “discredit icons like Mnangagwa”.

“The sanctions on Zimbabwe and the orchestrated attacks on social media against our president and our first family are the modern equivalents of colonial-era public beheading and lynching,” Chinamasa told a weekly press briefing. .

He likened the social media attacks on Mnangagwa and his family to the attacks faced by heroes of anti-colonial wars,

Political analyst and commentator Rejoice Ngwenya criticized the police statement, saying the move flouted fundamental rights such as freedom of expression.

“It is part of the extension of the paranoia of this government. The plan to stop what they call cyberbullying must be resisted. It is completely illegal,” Ngwenya told Al Jazeera. “We are a constitutional democracy.”

Ngwenya argued the police warning was meant to silence critics of Mnangagwa on social media, such as award-winning documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono, an anti-corruption campaigner who faces trial for incitement to violent anti-government protests, and pro-democracy activist Pedzisai. Rouhanya.

“It is subjective to say that when you comment and share your views on Collins Mnangagwa (Mnangagwa’s son) or Emmerson Mnangagwa… on social media, it amounts to trolling or harassment,” Ngwenya said. “Who judges it to be cyberbullying and what are the criteria?”

In recent months, human rights activists and advocacy groups have denounced an “unprecedented” crackdown on dissent that has resulted in the arrest of dozens of opposition activists and officials. The government has denied that it stifled opposing voices.

Tabani Moyo, director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa in Zimbabwe, also denounced the police statement as an attack on freedom of expression.

“It is very unfortunate that in this polarized environment, the police have taken a stand to protect the ruling elites. They should not be seen as excluding officials from scrutiny,” Moyo told Al Jazeera.

“They need to understand that there is a difference between cyberbullying and free speech and holding public officials accountable. As a people, we have the right to express ourselves freely.