A shutdown of the internet by the Zimbabwe government this week, in an attempt to quell deadly protests, ended up achieving the exact opposite result – a total shutdown of the economy, including key public services like health and education.
Miscalculating Government Paralyzes Country’s Business Operations
Mobile networks and internet service providers suspended web services on Jan. 15 under an order by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security. The idea was to prevent social media platforms like Whatsapp, Twitter, Youtube and Facebook from being used by citizens to spread messages of revolution following a 150 percent increase in the pump price of diesel and petrol.
The ban was reviewed Thursday, Jan. 17 to apply only to those four popular social networks but was reimposed again later that evening. Since Jan. 14, when the demonstrations started, more than three people have died from the protests, partly mobilized on social media throughout the Southern African country’s major cities. Police stations have been burned down and shops looted and destroyed.
While the government may have been looking to strengthen its hand in news management and contain demonstrations, the shutdown has completely paralyzed business activities that rely on the internet. Instead of protestors shutting down the economy, the government totalized the inability of businesses to operate with the internet blockade. Bank transfers were impossible and the stock market was also down. All bitcoin-related transactions have been effectively disabled.
Meanwhile, the government explained the shutdown with conflicting messages, from a flimsy alibi to constitutionally drawn justifications. Ironically, the country’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa and other public officials continued addressing Zimbabweans on restricted social networks like Twitter, partly giving away the administration’s tendency to play international politics while restricting freedoms at home.
Stunned Citizens Switch to Censorship-Free Alternatives
The government’s social media communications might also be an acknowledgement of the futility of blocking communications, as citizens in crisis situations have always been known to move to the next available platform. A growing number of Zimbabweans have started to switch to Telegram and are utilizing TOR and VPNs to unlock restricted platforms like Whatsapp, Facebook and Twitter. Whisper networks are ideal for citizens to communicate outside state restrictions and surveillance.
The real miscalculation was the effect of such a total ban on business operations. The existing liquidity crisis, also responsible for fuel shortages, has forced businesses to migrate online, with most shops having gone cashless, using mostly bank cards to facilitate transactions.
The internet shutdown means that retailers such as supermarkets were closed for business. The social extent to the blackout has apparently been unclear to the Zimbabwean authorities. Instead of battling to keep social services uninterrupted, the government also compromised healthcare, education and other public services, as they not only rely heavily on electronic transactions, but also need internet for records, internal systems and research.
Blundering Government Conflicts Itself as Internet Providers Challenge Ban
On Jan. 15, citizens suddenly found themselves offline, left to speculate on the cause and length of the blackout. Others proceeded to renew their data packages, assuming they were out of data, only for the new data plan to expire unused.
The deputy minister of information, Energy Mutodi, initially denied that the government had shut down the internet, putting it down to congestion, and insisting subscribers check if they were using valid data bundles. Subsequently, his ministry contradicted him, claiming that the government was acting in terms of an act of the constitution. It said on its Twitter handle:
Interception of Communications Act provides for the issuing of a warrant to interfere with communications where…public safety or national security is threatened. An unknown number of anarchists are attacking anyone and everything is a national security threat.
On Jan. 16, the country’s biggest telecom company, Econet Wireless, sent its customers a notice attributing the internet shutdown to the government – one of the sweeping measures employed by the authorities to contain the violence, aside from allegations of indiscriminate state violence. The company said it was now challenging the internet blockade at the High Court.
Maintaining Free Course for Propaganda
Besides freezing the circulation of anti-establishment messages, the Zimbabwe government may have sought to maintain a free course for propaganda. Newspapers were unable to operate their web editions in the usual way and their ability to maintain touch with correspondents was initially limited till they caught on to alternative communications. The ban means media is still unable to take full advantage of social networks to share or receive updates. Government is also maintaining an illiberal chokehold on citizens’ ability to have an unmediated idea of what’s happening around them.
The heavy-handed state response to the protests indicates how centralized governance systems are anathema to individual freedoms, something that is rightly challenged by disruptive and decentralized systems like cryptocurrency and the dark web which resist state and corporate control. Perhaps the blackout, unjustifiable as it is, is an opportunity for citizens to think about the trust we have in governments and technology companies to maintain benevolent facilitation of our business and communication needs.
What is your opinion about the government crackdown on the internet and the protests in Zimbabwe? Share your thoughts on the subject in the comments section below.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock.
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