The Zimbabwean government has warned citizens who use social media to promote civil unrest, despondency and violence that they will be arrested and dealt with.
Part of the statement released by the telecoms regulator, POTRAZ which has also been broadcast on national radio read,
We are therefore warning members of the public that from the date of this notice, any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive telecommunication messages, including WhatsApp or any other social media messages that may be deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.
Over the past few months there has been an increasing use of social media platforms to communicate politically motivated messages in Zimbabwe.
Social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and YouTube have also been used as the primary channels to encourage citizen activism. The leading example of this has been the #ThisFlag movement started by a Zimbabwean pastor, Evan Mawarire.
Through his Facebook and YouTube videos which are also shared through WhatsApp, Mawarire has called for accountability from the government.
He has also encouraged Zimbabweans to take part in a mass stay away which was organised by citizens as a protest of failed government policies.
A focus on people who create such messages could also be used to close in on social media activists like Mawarire.
The government’s ability to effectively follow up on its warnings and clamp down on all cases of social media misuse is, however, debatable.
Features like End to End Encryption which have been adopted by popular services like WhatsApp make it virtually impossible for thrird party access to messages unless they are broadcast in an unsecured public group.
The only way the State can find who has such material and arrest or deal with all the people who have such messages would be to search every device used for social media.
At the same time the threat against users based on SIM card registration details also appears to be an attempt at creating the impression that the State has an all seeing eye when it comes to communication.
However, on the internet, anonymity might not always be guaranteed, but there are a lot of structures that have been put in place by countless services, especially social media tools, to ensure that it becomes a right. This makes it difficult to “unmask” users.
A good example is how the government has, in the past, failed to deal with cases like the true identity of Baba Jukwa – a Facebook page that shared a lot of sensitive information in 2013 towards the national elections.
While the statement from POTRAZ might dissuade a number of Zimbabweans from sharing some content in certain groups or on certain platforms, it has shown that social media has forced an official response from the government as it tries to deal with the realities of open expression on the internet.