The riots took place in the absence of the president, who flew to Moscow to ask Vladimir Putin to help solve the economic crisis.Protesters in the capital of Zimbabwe – Harare Photo by Reuters
Since January 14, mass protests have been held in Zimbabwe due to higher prices for food and gasoline. The cost of the latter has more than doubled – from $ 1.4 to $ 3.3, forcing thousands of people across the country to take to the streets. Against this background, under the threat of prison, the authorities forced the largest providers to completely disable the Internet. According to preliminary estimates, because of this, the country’s economy has lost about 17 million dollars.
Thus, Zimbabwe has expanded the list of states whose authorities use Internet blocking for political purposes and to combat dissatisfaction. Human rights activists believe that in recent years the number of such countries has increased significantly, and 2019 is unlikely to be an exception.
How did the authorities turn off the Internet?
Mass protests began in the country on January 14 – right after President Emmerson Mnangagwa left for an official visit to Moscow. He became the first foreign leader Vladimir Putin met in 2019, and the purpose of the visit of the African leader was to help the country overcome the economic crisis.
Major protests began in the capital, Harare, and in the second largest city, Bulawayo. Protesters accused the authorities of failing to fulfill their promises, including stabilizing the prices of food and gasoline. First, the indignant began to erect barricades and burn tires on the streets of the city, and then entered into a direct clash with the police. During the first few days at least three people died in the actions, including a police officer, about 200 people were detained.Putin at a meeting with Mnangagvaya Photo from the Kremlin’s official website
The country’s leadership (without the direct participation of the president) accused the opposition of unrest by comparing the methods of the protesters with the actions of terrorists. In an attempt to stabilize the situation, the Ministry of Security of Zimbabwe ordered the country’s providers to disable Internet access for their clients. The authorities have not announced this publicly.
Citizens learned about the government’s decision from the head of the country’s largest Internet provider, Econet Wireless, Stryva Masiyiva. He explained that he was forced to obey under the threat of imprisonment. The leadership of the second largest Internet provider TelOne has collided with a similar ultimatum. The remaining two Internet operators, whose client base is significantly smaller, were ordered to restrict access only partially – the blocking touched instant messengers and social networks.
According to Kommersant, the decision of the government of Zimbabwe most of all affected not the protesters, but ordinary citizens. They lost access to the usual Internet services and the possibility of online payment of any services. More than 95% of commercial transactions in the country are transferred to bank cards or EcoCash money transfers (owned by Econet Wireless).
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]The overwhelming majority of the country’s population pays utility bills online, while not immediately for the entire month, but daily. Therefore, following the Internet, many residents soon lost electricity.[/perfectpullquote]
Did the Internet shutdown affect rallies
Apparently, turning off the Internet did not help the government to stabilize the situation in Zimbabwe. The day after the blocking, on January 16, the pogroms continued. In one of the suburbs of Bulawayo, six women and a man broke into supermarkets in a shopping center and stole food from the shelves, wroteTimesLive. The lack of police has sown fear among ordinary citizens – they are afraid to leave the house because of fears of facing protesters.
Shop robberies also occur in other cities, as the police were not ready for sudden rallies. This is due to the fact that, in order to save money, the authorities have reduced the number of working days at the police and cut their salaries. The same happened to the nurses in medical centers who could not cope with the flow of victims. More than 60 protesters were hospitalized with bullet wounds .
Apparently, the authorities were not ready for the difficulties caused by the disconnection of the Internet. Several times the government allowed Econet to return access to the network for users, and then again ordered it to be blocked. It lasted until January 19 – after that the Internet in the country started workingagain , but without access to social networks.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]By January 20, the number of people killed during the protests reached 12, and the number of detainees – 600.[/perfectpullquote]
At the same time, a group of anonymous hackers began a massive DDoS attack on more than 20 government sites (at the time of writing, access to them was partially restored) of Zimbabwe and appealed to the authorities. In their message, unknown persons called what is happening in the country “repression and tyranny”, promising to soon undermine the work of the banking system.
Unknown did not specify the exact date of their action and did not explain how this will happen. In a conversation with iAfrikan, a member of the anonymous hacker group said that the team’s goal was to help Zimbabweans achieve freedom of speech and rights. Unknown assured that only after achieving this goal, hackers will stop the “operation” in Zimbabwe.
On January 21, the Zimbabwe Supreme Court declared the government’s requirement to turn off the Internet as illegal, as it violates the country’s constitution and was initiated without the President’s permission. The Internet has again earned in the country, and Econet has promised to compensate for the loss of funds to everyone who purchased additional Internet traffic during the blocking period.
According to the human rights organization Access Now, blocking the Internet for three days (the exact number of days when the country did not have access to the Internet completely is still unknown) cost Zimbabwe’s economy more than $ 17 million. For a country that has not suffered from a financial crisis for the first year, this is a sizeable amount.
How the popularity of Internet disconnection grows in different countries
According to CNN, blocking the Internet during protests is increasingly practiced in various countries. In 2016, 75 Internet outages were documented , in 2017, the number of outages increased to 108, and in 2018, to 188. This is a total of 371 cases, 310 of which occurred in Asia, 46 in Africa, and another 12 in Europe, including blocking Telegram in Russia and the subsequent rallies.
For three weeks in 2019, residents of five countries were faced with blocking the Internet. In addition to Zimbabwe, this includes Sudan, Bangladesh, Congo and Gabon. In all cases, decisions came from the government and were associated either with protests or with political opposition to the opposition.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“In 2018, we observed a sharp increase in the number of Internet disconnections. And judging by the beginning of 2019, the situation will not get better in the near future, ” said Access Now human rights activist Berhana Taye.[/perfectpullquote]
Formally, there is nothing difficult about turning off the Internet in the country. To do this, the authorities need to order Internet service providers to simultaneously disconnect all users. In the case of a full-scale outage, ordinary people will not be able to do anything – only if before this someone does not organize an alternative source of communication.
One of the first massive blackouts for political purposes occurred in the Chinese region of Xinjiang in 2009. Because of the riots that broke out, the authorities have deprived the region of the Internet for almost a year. The decision was explained by the protection of national security, and since then similar rhetoric has been adhered to by the authorities of other countries.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]According to Access Now, authorities often justify turning off the Internet with three benefits: ensuring public safety, fighting illegal content and maintaining national security.[/perfectpullquote]