Mugabe Unleashes Social
Media Attacks, Attempts
To Block Whatsapp and facebook

New York Times| He was an unknown pastor,
upset about the hardships of daily life in
But when he posted a protest video on
Facebook, wrapping himself in the national
flag, the Rev. Evan Mawarire became one of
Zimbabwe’s first social media stars, the
embodiment of widespread grievances against
President Robert Mugabe. His subsequent
posts on Twitter helped set the stage for the
biggest protest against the government in a
decade in the capital, Harare, in early July.
The Zimbabwean government, which had
initially dismissed Mr. Mawarire, grasped the
danger that the pastor — and social media —
posed, potentially more dangerous than
anything Mr. Mugabe had faced during his 36
years in power.
Responding with the same ruthlessness with
which it had dispatched critics over the years,
the government jailed the pastor, took him to
court and told him to leave Zimbabwe.
The pastor, who fled with his family to South
Africa and then to the United States, now
says he is “definitely not going back to
Zimbabwe anytime soon.”
“The government first treated social media
with disdain and mockery,” Mr. Mawarire said
by phone from the airport in Charlotte, N.C.,
where he was waiting to catch a flight. “But
then, after people started getting galvanized
and mobilized, they thought, ‘Wait a minute.
This is real.’”
Rid of the pastor, the government soon began
a wider crackdown on social media.
It raised prices on cellphone data,
immediately curtailing the ability of
opposition parties and activists to organize
via social media applications like WhatsApp.
And it is pressing ahead with comprehensive
legislation that would allow the police to
intercept data, seize electronic equipment and
arrest people on loosely defined charges of
“insurgency” and “terrorism.”
Zimbabwe has joined a growing list of African
nations that have curbed social media in the
last year.
Fearing the power that social media gives to
rivals, activists and ordinary citizens,
governments in Gabon, the Republic of Congo,
Chad, Uganda, Burundi and Ethiopia have
switched off access to the internet for days
or weeks, including during elections. Even
Ghana, a standard-bearer for democracy on
the continent, is considering restricting
social media in elections next month.
The pushback comes as the use of social media
continues to spread across the continent and
tech companies increasingly look to sub-
Saharan Africa for growth. With many
Africans still offline, Africa has a large,
untapped market, and is the continent with
the world’s fastest-growing population.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive,
paid his first visit to sub-Saharan Africa in
August even as Zimbabwe and other African
nations were moving to curb their citizens’
use of social media. Facebook and WhatsApp,
which is also controlled by Mr. Zuckerberg,
have become the favorite tools of many
political activists.
In a two-day trip to Nigeria — Facebook’s
biggest African market, with 18 million users
— Mr. Zuckerberg met with young techies and
stars of the Nigerian movie industry, known
as Nollywood . The a tour was perhaps
intended to charm ordinary Africans as much
as alleviate the worries of their leaders.
Supa Mandiwanzira, Zimbabwe’s information
technology minister, said the government’s
proposed legislation, the Computer Crime and
Cyber Crime Bill, was not meant to control
people’s use of social media.
“The problem comes when you use social media
to promote anarchy and civil disorder,” Mr.
Mandiwanzira said in an interview. “That’s
illegal, and legal consequences will naturally
But Nelson Chamisa, who served as the
information technology minister during a
coalition government between 2009 and 2013,
said Mr. Mugabe’s government had shown
little interest in the bill until the recent
protests. Now, he said, the government is
rushing ahead with a “reactionary, panic
“It’s a bill meant to try to curtail social
media, which is a new flank, a new war
zone,” said Mr. Chamisa, now a vice president
of the main