Harare, Zimbabwe – Rights campaigners in Zimbabwe have decried a police statement warning social media users against engaging in what it described as “cyberbullying” of government officials, calling it an attempt to muzzle freedom of expression in the country.
In its statement on Monday, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) said arrests were “imminent” for unnamed “suspects” who have been “issuing threats and harassing government officials” on social media.
“The ZRP warns individuals and groups from committing crime through cyberbullying of government officials who will be performing their constitutional and lawful obligations in terms of service delivery to Zimbabweans,” the statement said.
— Zimbabwe Republic Police (@PoliceZimbabwe) December 7, 2020
Zimbabweans are currently bearing the brunt of an economic crisis characterised by hyperinflation that has eroded the value of their earnings and unemployment that has reached an estimated 90 percent.
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 at the receiving end of uncomplimentary comments from dissatisfied Zimbabweans whenever he posts on the social networks.
Government officials have also not been spared from criticism over how the 78-year-old has run the country’s economy since taking over in a military coup in November 2017.
The police statements came a few days after Patrick Chinamasa, acting spokesperson of ZANU-PF, the party that has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1980, alleged Zimbabwe’s colonial masters were using social media to “discredit icons like Mnangagwa”.
“Sanctions against Zimbabwe and the orchestrated social media attacks against our president and first family are the modern-day equivalents of public beheading and lynching in colonial times,” Chinamasa said at a weekly news briefing.
He equated social media attacks on Mnangagwa and his family to attacks faced by heroes of anti-colonial wars,
Political analyst and commentator Rejoice Ngwenya criticised the statement by the police, saying the move trampled fundamental rights such as freedom of expression.
“This is part of the extension of the paranoia of this government. The plan to arrest what they are calling cyberbullying must be resisted. It’s totally illegal,” Ngwenya told Al Jazeera. “We are a constitutional democracy.”
Ngwenya argued the police warning was designed to silence Mnangagwa’s critics on social media such as award-winning documentary filmmaker Hopewell Chin’ono, an anti-corruption campaigner who faces trial on charges of inciting violent anti-government protests, and pro-democracy activist Pedzisai Ruhanya.
“It’s subjective to say that when you comment and share your view about Collins Mnangagwa (Mnangagwa’s son) or Emmerson Mnangagwa … on social media, it amounts to trolling or harassment,” Ngwenya said. “Who judges that this is cyberbullying and what are the criteria?”
Human rights campaigners and rights groups in recent months have decried an “unprecedented” clampdown on dissent that has resulted in the arrests of dozens of activists and opposition officials. The government has denied stifling opposing voices.
Tabani Moyo, director at the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe, also decried the police statement as an attack on freedom of expression.
“It’s very unfortunate that in this polarised environment that the police have taken the stand to protect the ruling elites. They must not be seen to be ringfencing public officials from scrutiny,” Moyo told Al Jazeera.
“They must understand that there is a difference between cyberbullying and free speech and holding public officials to account. As a people, we have a right to express ourselves freely.”