Latest News Editor's Choice

Opinion / Columnist

The case for the internet shutdown

18 Jan 2019 at 13:33hrs | Views
The bygone violent and destructive protest stay away in most urban centres of Zimbabwe which ran from Monday to Wednesday this week triggered an internet shutdown since Tuesday morning. This was on the back of very worrying developments in which the prime movers and participants of the protests were using the social media to spread subversive ideas such as how to make petrol bombs for use during the protest which threatened national security and stability.

Although the reasons for the internet outage were positive and the decision taken for the greater good of the whole nation, as has come to be expected, some people for various reasons ranging from the inevitable inconvenience caused to the legality of the move, complained. Initially most social media users were not aware of what had happened and resorted to speculating both the facts and the reasons thereof until one of the mobile network operators, Econet Wireless issued a statement on the same day.

"Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President's Office for National Security through the Director General of the President's Department, acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, internet services are currently suspended across all networks and internet service providers. We are obliged to do so and the matter is beyond our control. All inconveniences (sic) are sincerely regretted," read the statement.

Court cases
Despite the fact that Econet Wireless seemed to understand the authorities' decision and the fact that it was obliged to comply, it is among a number of individuals and organisations who have responded to the development by taking the minister to court. On 18 January Econet advised its customers that: "Our lawyers advised we are required to comply with the directive pending the court's decision on its legality. The earlier directives are already the subject of a pending High Court application,"

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe and three journalists namely Columbus Mavunga, Godwin Mangudya and Philemon Jambaya also took the minister to court arguing that the inevitable and necessary shutdown was a violation of universal fundamental right to access to essential means of communication. The United Kingdom-based lawyer, Alex Magaisa also argued that the law quoted by Econet did not have a provision for the issuing of a warrant and that only a directive was provided for by the law. He further contended that the statute allowed the minister to only intercept communication and not block it. As to whether these parties are correct or not, this will only be determined by the courts.

The case for the closure
The switching off of internet connectivity for various reasons is not a new phenomenon both in Africa and the world. The reactions to the incidents by some Zimbabwe especially those who have always been sworn opposers of Government was, as expected, shrill and dramatic. It was as if Government had beheaded all the estimated 5.2 million Zimbabweans who use the Whatsapp social media platform. In any case, this was the first time that this happened in the country. A study carried out for the Forbes Magazine by Statista covering the period January 2016 and May 2018 indicated that Zimbabwe was not on the list, that India had the highest number at 154 occasions, Pakistan coming second at 19 while in Africa the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) had the highest occasions at five incidents.

The reasons
If anyone's heart did not skip a beat at the sight of marauding, violent and rowdy youths seizing control of police stations and torching police, buses and stoning police officers to death, then they do not value the peace which is prevailing in the country. The peace came about as a result of a long and gruelling liberation struggle. Those who participated in or witnessed the war would testify that it is an experience which should not be allowed to recur at the whims of some youths who were zonked by some illicit brew and run by the opposition and some rogue civil society.

The reason why the internet was shut down was to ensure national security and stability which was evidently threatened by the rioters. Someone would argue that Zimbabwe has experienced riots from the University of Zimbabwe student riots of 1989, the 1995 student mutiny of 1995 and the January 1998 food riots. Yes, these incidents occurred but the context and environment are totally different this time around. During the stay away Whatsapp was used to spread messages such as how to make bombs which obviously threatened national peace. In one message the people behind the so called stay away encouraged their foot soldiers to target specific areas such as Harare's northern suburbs. The reason: going about their normal life as if this was criminal or sinful. In other words, what was touted as a peaceful protest was, in fact, a full scale war against Government, its various departments and Zimbabweans who ignored the stay away call, which was well within their rights.

Reasons for closure of internet connectivity elsewhere range from security concerns, examination cheating and dealing with political turmoil as well as violent protests. During the period surveyed by Statista the Darjeeling region of India underwent a 45-day internet closure due to political protests. Turkey's 2016 failed coup provides a shining example of how an internet shutdown saved the country froma potential period of instability of not full scale war.

Although the complainants in the internet shutdown cases pending before the courts are entitled to their rights to contest the decision, the foregoing has demonstrated that the minister had no option except to make a decision which saves the country from a section of its own citizens. A week (which is an insignificant period in the Indian experience) of internet outage is worthwhile compared to possible years of instability or war. Before Econet decided to contest the minister's decision it should have also thought of the fact that a few days of internet outage and revenue loss are nothing compared to the possibility of losing business due to a longer period of national instability if the situation was not contained.

As the country waits for the courts to decide on the matter, it should bear in mind that a stitch in time in terms of national security is a less painful inconvenience compared to allowing national instability take root in the name of individual rights. Most of the people who are fighting for the right to access the internet are basing their complaints on western experiences and conveniently forgetting that our situation is different.

 Most Western countries are generally peaceful and stable and, therefore, the switching off of the internet is unimaginable and very unlikely. They should understand the differences in cultural and contextual nuances. The social media played a role in the destructive and violent Arab Spring protests of North Africa in 2011 and no Government would just watch while its country is being plunged into instability.
Source - Nobleman Runyanga
All articles and letters published on Bulawayo24 have been independently written by members of Bulawayo24's community. The views of users published on Bulawayo24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Bulawayo24. Bulawayo24 editors also reserve the right to edit or delete any and all comments received.