Authoritarian regimes have long had a complicated relationship with media and communications technologies. The Unfreedom Monitor is a Global Voices Advox research initiative examining the growing phenomenon of networked or digital authoritarianism. This executive summary of the report on Zimbabwe is from the series of reports to come out of the research under the Unfreedom Monitor. Read the full report here.
Digital authoritarianism in Zimbabwe has roots in the colonial period when the Rhodesian regime implemented communication and media management policies premised on propping up the then government’s image. Led by the late Robert Mugabe, the independent government also encouraged a restrictive media environment with laws that sought to regulate and persecute voices of dissent. In the early days of the internet in the country in the mid-90s, the space was not seen as a real threat as most citizens had not yet adopted information and communication technologies. It was only after Facebook became popular as a source of news in 2010, in a highly polarised media environment, that the state took an increasingly keen interest in what media the population was consuming.
A key motive for digital repression identified in the research is based on an overarching desire to maintain the status quo and hegemony, where only a few of the ruling elite feel entitled to ownership of the country. For instance, the threat of revolutionary change inspired by social media mobilisation had to be neutralised. The November 2017 military coup that deposed long time ruler Mugabe did not lead to fundamental change but instead provided fertile ground for a more militarised approach to governance, without much regard for constitutionalism. The current regime continually amends the nationally accepted 2013 constitution, as the president seeks to expand the influence of the executive over the judiciary and the legislature. Realising the strategic importance of both the media and the online digital sphere, the ruling junta views both spaces not as a means of empowering citizens to take part in democratic processes, but more as tools for the consolidation of political power. The political and legal extent to which the Zimbabwean state is willing to use technology to entrench the status quo depends greatly on its national context, and the success of any established digital rights regime depends on their political and country context.
The law has been a major part of this process. Enabling legislation has been passed to undermine legitimate dissent against unpopular policies and political leadership methods. This new legislation impacts digital rights as it enables an oppressive context. The influence of foreign governments and corporations in shaping Zimbabwe’s digital environment is also a pressing issue. As the study will show, the authoritarian regime aggressively seeks to survive in an ever changing political and economic landscape created by globalisation, by resorting to methods such as the use of surveillance technologies, the unmonitored collection of citizens’ biometric data, and the promulgation of draconian legislation. The key actors identified as supplying the government with digitally repressive technologies are just as complicit in digital rights violations and the closing of civic space both on online and offline platforms.
Read the full report here.