A recent global survey has exposed limitations hindering the majority of Zimbabwean citizens from enjoying full internet freedom.
The 2023 Freedom On The Net report ranked the country poorly across various parameters, with challenges in access, content restrictions, and user rights violation standing out as dominant concerns.
According to the findings from the annual research conducted by the global Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Freedom House, Zimbabwe maintained its ‘partly free’ status, with a score of 51 out of 100, a slight improvement from the previous year’s 49 out of 100.
This increase was partially credited to a reduction in power cuts towards the end of the assessment period, which coincided with the run-up to the August 2023 harmonized elections.
The survey, spanning from June 1, 2022, to May 31, 2023, exposed how pro-Zanu PF Twitter accounts conducted smear campaigns against local civil society organizations and opposition figures in the lead-up to the elections.
The report also highlighted multiple cyber breaches targeting Zoom and Twitter accounts belonging to Parliament and other state institutions, revealing vulnerabilities in the government’s cyber security measures.
Regarding obstacles to access, where the country scored 10 out of 25 points, infrastructural limitations impacting internet speed and quality, the exorbitant cost of connectivity, legal and regulatory barriers restricting diversity of service providers dominated the category.
The report emphasized how Zimbabwe’s economic crisis severely limited internet access, with rising inflation and costs posing challenges for impoverished rural communities and individuals with lower incomes to afford internet and telecommunication services.
“As Internet Service Providers (ISPs) continue to raise the cost of voice, text messaging, and data to cover their operational expenses, these increased costs are ultimately borne by users, who are already grappling with the country’s broad economic downturn,” part of the report read.
While the country scored relatively higher in terms of content limitations, the report noted that the High Court of Zimbabwe, although it mandated the restoration of connectivity following an internet shutdown in 2019, did not declare internet shutdowns in general as illegal, thereby restricting citizens’ online participation.
It also highlighted self-censorship among journalists, commentators, and ordinary citizens due to government threats, along with the arrest of human rights defenders for their online activism, which led to increased reluctance among users to express their opinions online during the coverage period.
Several violations of user rights, citing some legal constraints that contradicted constitutional provisions on press freedom, freedom of expression, and access to information were again highlighted in the report.
Nompilo Simanje, Africa Advocacy and Partnerships Lead at the International Press Institute (IPI) emphasized that the report exposed the ongoing violation of internet freedoms in Zimbabwe.
“The 2023 Freedom on the Net report on Zimbabwe depicts how internet freedoms continue to be undermined in Zimbabwe. This includes the increase of prices of data that widens the digital divide but also through arrests, threats, and harassment over online expression,” Simanje said.
Simanje recommended a simultaneous focus on infrastructure development and efforts to increase internet affordability to bridge the digital divide.
“Efforts towards infrastructure development in the telecommunications sector should be complemented by efforts towards internet affordability. The Zimbabwean government should desist from any forms of internet restrictions, be it throttling or internet shutdowns, journalists and ordinary citizens alike should be able to freely express themselves online without fear of reprisals,” Simanje added.
Nigel Nyamutumbu, Head of Secretariat at Media Alliance of Zimbabwe, highlighted the disparity between internet service providers’ charges and subpar quality of connectivity in Zimbabwe compared to other countries in the region.
“There is a need to address the cost of accessing internet, particularly when comparing data costs with other countries and evaluating the accessibility and availability of internet quality,” Nyamutumbu noted.
Nyamutumbu also emphasized state-sponsored disinformation through outfits like VarakashiforED, sponsored by the state and responsible for spreading disinformation online.
“There are reports by fact-checking organizations on WhatsApp, Facebook, and X, where cases of disinformation have been propagated by these outfits. It is a challenge that requires an open conversation on how we can push back against the spread of disinformation,” Nyamutumbu added.
Commenting on recent data tariff hikes, Rosemary Mpofu, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ), acknowledged the regulator POTRAZ’s approved hikes, emphasizing the need for a balanced approach to ensure internet access for all.
“Communication is now a basic need that keeps families together, even though they could be separated for various reasons; students do research, workplaces function, and businesses thrive online so any increment reverse such gains, eroding consumers’ disposable incomes that could be channelled towards other family needs,” Mpofu said.
Mpofu recommended ongoing dialogue between service providers, policymakers, consumers, and the government to ensure a focus on improved internet access.
During an event in Chivi, Masvingo last month, Minister of Information Communication Technology, Postal, and Courier Services Tatenda Mavetera highlighted that half of Zimbabwe’s population remains offline, indicating a failure by many citizens to freely express themselves online due to lack of access.
As the nation approached the August 2023 elections, numerous citizens voiced concerns about the interception of their mobile numbers, receiving unsolicited campaign messages from political players through text messages and online platforms, which analysts deemed a clear violation of people’s right to privacy.
Among other countries in the region that also ranked ‘partly free’ but had higher scores were Zambia (59), Angola (59), Malawi (60), and Kenya (66), with Uganda scoring the same 51 points as Zimbabwe.