By Divine Dube
An arbitrary ban of social media sites such as WhatsApp, Twitter and YouTube by government authorities has triggered Zimbabweans — a majority who rely on social media for news, to install Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications to access blocked sites, while others are quickly migrating to Telegram as a replacement for WhatsApp.
On Tuesday last week, Zimbabwean authorities ordered telecommunications companies and internet providers to partially shut down Internet following violent nationwide protests triggered by fuel price increases decreed by President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
By Tuesday night, the Internet had been completely shut down leaving a majority of citizens in an information black-out.
Pundits say the draconian move to shut down the Internet is meant to disable citizens from mobilising against Mnangagwa’ s crumbling administration and to curtail dissemination of information about an ensuing State-sponsored crackdown on protesters and perceived enemies of the State, mainly opposition party activists.
At the height of the deadly protests on Tuesday, citizen journalists used WhatsApp, arguably the most popular social networking site in the country, to share gory images of the brutality of state security details meted on protesting civilians and those caught on cross-fire, a development which triggered state authorities to block social media sites.
When the Internet was partially opened on Wednesday, a majority of Zimbabweans quickly installed VPN to bypass firewalls activated by Internet providers to block social media sites. But others had already begun sharing links to Telegram, a site similar to WhatsApp and which a majority of Zimbabweans have been flocking to in the past few days.
According to tech experts, Telegram is difficult to block compared to WhatsApp and it might be a herculean task for the Zimbabwean government which is increasingly wary about what State authorities term “social media abuse”, to block the platform, which is slowly gaining popularity in the turmoil-ridden country.
“It is unfortunate that we live under such a miserable dictatorship which is so much obsessed with oppression and seeing shadows where there are none. Anyone who gets into government must be ready to be criticised, the internet is the backbone of the digital economy,” Mlungisi Dube, an avid social media activist said.
“The government cannot win this battle, there are so many technologies to circumvent these firewalls as you have noted the likes of telegram and VPNs. Well-resourced countries like China have not entirely won such wars. The people will always triumph ahead of the dictatorship,” he added.
Alpha Media Holdings Group Online Editor and outspoken digital media advocate John Mokwetsi echoed Dube’s sentiments.
“When you look at the fact that 1.500 percent search spike for VPN has been realised since the ban on social media you will realise that digital tools that fight for people to express themselves is paramount and always a solution.”
He added: “What government is trying to do is to empty an ocean using a cup. Where WhatsApp is not there people discover telegram and this shows that in the digital era the voice cannot be silenced forever.”
Although last week’s deadly protests have swelled down, Zimbabwean authorities have threatened to continue with the Internet embargo “until further notice” amid a brewing second protest earmarked for Wednesday this week.
Today the High Court ruled against the Internet ban and ordered that blocked social media sites be open up, noting that only the President could decree the ban.
The relief came after the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Media Institute for Southern Africa-Zimbabwe had sued the government on the basis that the Internet ban was unconstitutional. — The Citizen Bulletin