Social media block in Zimbabwe?

Net Neutrality
Net Neutrality

As you may be aware Zimbabwe has had demonstrations in the past few days over the ban on imports and harrasment by the police. The demonstrations and civil unrest has been driven using social media under the hashtags #thisflag and #tajamuka. The civil movements have used WhatsApp and Facebook to drive their message and co-ordinate activities. As with the Arab Spring we are witnessing the power of social media.

#thisflag movement
#thisflag movement

According to a close source to the events, the Government of Zimbabwe may be planning to ban social media in the coming days. We are reliably told that the government has made the plans in a bid to prevent protest messages spreading on social media.

According to several sources, the development is linked to the general intention by the Zimbabwean government to have a single international gateway that it can control.

In April, the President of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, said the government was looking to learn from China’s Great Firewall in restricting access to certain websites.

“The Chinese have put in place security measures and we will look at these so that we stop these abuses on the internet.”

The key social media services likely targeted for blocking are WhatsApp and Facebook as these are widely popular in the country of more than 6.6 million internet subscriptions. WhatsApp for example, accounts for about 34% of the mobile internet traffic in Zimbabwe.

It’s not clear yet just how the Zimbabwean government intends to make such a block effective technically, as any ban of specific websites will mean some internet users will resort to VPN services to still get access to social media websites. This would therefore likely lead to the government going for a total blackout of the internet.

Zimbabwe has experienced a number of protest events in the past several days. On 2 July protestors in the border town of Beitbridge demonstrated against new restrictive import laws and the protests resulted in temporary closure of Zimbabwe largest port of entry with South Africa. Yesterday, protests in Harare led to the arrest of more than 30 people. A nationwide stay away planned for today, the 6 July, has also been called for by activists and opposition political leaders.

Several videos and pictures shot by social media users in Beitbridge and in Harare during the protests were posted on Facebook and WhatsApp and spread virally. Some videos showed police brutally assaulting protestors and other videos of protesters brutally assaulting police and journalists. The blocking of social media is therefore likely meant to stop such user generated content from spreading.

We hope the Zimbabwean government does not take the steps of breaking net neutrality.