NAIROBI — WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been blocked in Zimbabwe amid huge anti-government protests and a brutal police crackdown.
Zimbabweans have been unable to access nearly all social media platforms since Tuesday, when the government issued a total internet shutdown.
Doctors say they have treated nearly 70 people for gunshot wounds, with reports of random arrests by the police and military, and demonstrators being beaten in the streets.
The internet blackout caused thousands of Zimbabweans to rely on location-masking virtual private networks (VPNs) in order to stay connected. Those who managed to get online made desperate calls for help.
“Students who need to pay tuition or exam fees and people who need medical advice from doctors outside of the country are not able to communicate right now,” Denford Halimani, an attorney with the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, told BuzzFeed News over the phone from the capital, Harare.
“Some people’s lives are basically at a standstill because of this unusual and drastic directive,” he said. “They can’t function without these platforms.”
Late on Sunday night, the Zimbabwean government doubled the cost of fuel in response to shortages, creating even bigger problems in a country where people are already struggling to afford basic goods.
In response to the hike, activists — including Pastor Evan Mawarire of the #ThisFlag movement — called for a “stay away” demonstration, encouraging people to stay home and not go to work in protest.
Promise Mkwananzi, the leader of a social movement in Zimbabwe that helped organize the stay-away along with Mawarire, told BuzzFeed News that the cost of fuel was just one of several issues they were protesting.
“That was not the only problem,” he said on the phone from Harare. “We are facing an economic crisis coupled with unemployment and political illegitimacy.”
He was referring to the disputed results of the country’s first election without Robert Mugabe on the ballot. Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former vice president who ousted Mugabe and took over after he stepped down last November, was officially declared president on Aug. 2. But the opposition party argued that the votes had been tampered with, prompting protests that were met with violence from the military. At least six people were killed in post-election violence.
Protests that began this week were also met with extreme and excessive force by Zimbabwean police and military, human rights advocates say.
“On Monday there was open shooting by the police with live ammunition,” Human Rights Watch Southern Africa Director Dewa Mavhinga told BuzzFeed News from Johannesburg. “Thereafter there was a dragnet operation by the police and army, who were indiscriminately dragging people out of their homes, beating and arresting them.”
Mavhinga said that in less than 24 hours, more than 200 people had been arrested, including Mawarire.
A doctor from the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights told BuzzFeed News over WhatsApp that by Thursday, medical staff had treated 68 people with gunshot wounds, and at least 306 with other injuries. According to the doctor, one victim’s gunshot wound was so severe that it severed his spine and paralyzed him. A 5-year-old child’s fingers were broken when a soldier broke into his home and stepped on them while he was asleep. The doctor spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their safety.
Protest leader Mkwananzi said police ransacked his house on Monday, and again on Wednesday. As a known activist who speaks out against the government, he anticipated the response to his protest and had arranged for his wife and three children to be sent away from their home before it even started. He has also relocated to a town on the outskirts of the capital.
Mnangagwa is currently traveling in Europe — he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday — and will end his trip at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The president issued a statement on Facebook condemning the violence and calling for calm.
“As I have said numerous times, everyone in Zimbabwe has the right to express themselves freely — to speak out, to criticise and to protest,” he wrote.
People were quick to point out the irony.
The internet was restored Wednesday evening, according to Mavhinga, but social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube remain shut down. In a message sent to customers by the country’s main network service providers, the companies were “under a directive.”
Mavhinga believes the situation will continue to worsen before it improves and that, in some ways, the current climate is more fraught and dangerous than what many people experienced under Mugabe, who ruled the country with an iron fist for nearly 40 years.
“Even in terms of the scale and speed with which this violence has been committed, it’s unprecedented and hasn’t happened in 20 years,” he said. “The methods used by this regime are terror tactics.”