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This American Journalist Was Arrested For Allegedly Being Mean On Twitter

Martha O'Donovan, who works for a local television station, was arrested at dawn, her lawyers said, for allegedly sending out a tweet mocking Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe.

Posted on November 3, 2017, at 2:07 p.m. ET

Zimbabwean police arrested an American journalist working in the country's capital on Friday, accusing her of mocking President Robert Mugabe on Twitter.

Twitter: @ZLHRLawyers

Martha O'Donovan was arrested on Friday at dawn, according a Facebook post from Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, and detained at Harare Central Police Station. (O'Donovan is the sister of a BuzzFeed News employee.)

O'Donovan works for Magamba TV, a local station, that has taken to Twitter to defend her, sending out tweets with the hashtags #FreeMartha and #ArrestUsAll.

She actually didn’t even RT this. Her last tweets are From February. #FreeMartha

"Most Zimbabweans do vent on social media about the state of the country, so if they arrest her for this they might as well arrest all Zimbabweans on social media," Munya Bloggo, who also started the hashtags, told BuzzFeed News. "I don't think anyone is exempt."

Tongia Makawa, the station's co-founder and project manager, told BuzzFeed News that his colleagues have been going through increasing levels of shock throughout the day.

As for why O'Donovan was arrested, Makawa speculated that the social media work that she performed for the station had made her a target. "In all honesty, I think the only thing that's separates her from the rest of the team is the fact that she's a foreign national," he said.

In their initial post, ZLHR — who have assigned one of their lawyers to defend O'Donovan — said that the police had arrested her for posting a tweet on her account that insulted Mugabe.

The alleged tweet from O'Donovan's account, which was locked as of Friday afternoon, "referred to a certain Goblin, whose wife and step sons imported a Rolls Royce vehicle," the post read. "However, the reported offensive and insulting tweet does not make any mention of the President’s name."

According to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, she faces now two charges: insulting/undermining the president and "attempting to overthrow" the Mugabe government.

@MagambaTV She remains in custody, charged under Section 33 of #Zimbabwe's penal code for undermining authority/ins…

The latter charge carries a maximum sentence of twenty years in prison.

In a statement circulating on Twitter that O'Donovan allegedly signed, a different tweet altogether is listed as the justification for her arrest.

ZRP have finally charged @Martha_ODonovan accusing her of being @matigary & insulting Mugabe. Really?? #FreeMartha…

In the statement, O'Donovan acknowledges that it is alleged that she "posted a message on Twitter using username @matigary which reads, 'We are being led by a selfish and sick man,' with a photo illustration showing that the President of Zimbabwe, Comrade Robert Gabriel Mugabe is surviving on a Catheter."

“I deny the allegations leveled against me as baseless and malicious,” the statement continues above O'Donovan's signature, matching up with a description of the statement as reported by the AP.

According to her lawyer, Zimbabwean police claim the tweet in question, posted on Oct. 11, had been traced back to O'Donovan's IP address.

We are being led by a selfish & sick man @GomoDubi @tafadzwamarere @Busisa74 @caesarzvayi @mayor_justice…

The tweet initially named as the reason for her arrest also came from the @matigary account.

Goblin gets ZRP to chase around street forex dealers, yet his step son & wife imported Rolls Royce Limos. The nonsense we Zimbos put up with

But the @matigary account has continued tweeting even as O'Donovan has been in custody, including this one.

This is CBZ Bank's core capital. If fined $385mln by @USTreasury , capital will b wiped out @CBZHoldings @mpofu_ben…

BuzzFeed News has reached out to the account on Twitter for comment.

Her arrest is the first since Mugabe appointed a new "Minister for Cybersecurity" that activists immediately feared would be used to crackdown on online criticism.

Jekesai Njikizana / AFP / Getty Images

"This arrest marks the start of a sinister new chapter in the Zimbabwean government's clampdown on freedom of speech - and the new battleground is social media," Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director Muleya Mwananyanda said in a statement.

"Following President Mugabe’s appointment of a minister for ‘Cyber Security’ last month, the detention of Martha O’Donovan appears to confirm fears that this new portfolio will simply be used to punish anyone speaking out against the authorities on social media platforms," Mwananyanda said.

Meanwhile, the US government is not yet speaking out on the case. "We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in Zimbabwe," a State Department official told BuzzFeed News on Friday afternoon. "We stand ready to provide appropriate consular assistance for U.S. citizens. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment."

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.