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Zimbabwe Intensifies Crackdown on Facebook, WhatsApp Messages 'Insulting' Mugabe

Zimbabwe President Mugabe
Zimbabwe President Mugabe

Government is widening its crackdown on social media platforms such as Facebook and the messaging WhatsApp arresting people for allegedly insulting and denigrating President Robert Mugabe.

President Mugabe at 92 is the world’s oldest president and jokes about his age are a staple in the country. But the state is now intensifying efforts to silence the critics by arresting them.

The latest victim is a 46 year-old Nyanga man, Ernest Matsapa, charged with the crime of “criminal nuisance” as defined in section 46 (2) (v) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9.23.

Matsapa is alleged to have “unlawfully and intentionally sent an audio and visual message on WhatsApp social media network platform group called Nyanga Free Range of which he is a member.”

The audio and visual clip according to state papers has the impression that President Mugabe is incapacitated and has become a burden of the majority of people, including his family due to diminishing responsibility.

The state alleges that this is denigrating Mr. Mugabe and that, “such material is likely to interfere with the ordinary comfort, convenience, peace or quiet of the public or any section of the public, or does any act which is likely to create a nuisance or obstruction.”

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights or ZLHR says it has represented over 150 people charged with insulting Mr. Mugabe since 2010, though many cases were dropped.

In court, ZLHR has challenged the constitutionality of Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (Chapter 9:23) on several occasions, on the basis that it infringes on freedom of expression, particularly of a public figure, and one who must be subjected to scrutiny as a political candidate.

But Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also justice minister, has defended the law as necessary to prevent “the breach of public order and public safety”.

The Constitutional Court is yet to make a ruling. Lawyer Peggy Tavagadza of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights old VOA Studio 7 that police do not have a legal leg to stand on. According to the ZLHR, Matsapa is the second Zimbabwean to be targeted this year by authorities.

In February, police officers in Bindura, Mashonaland Central province arrested Edson Chuwe, a school headmaster at Shamva Primary School, Edna Garwe who is employed as a typist at the same school and Leman Pwanyiwa, who serves as the secretary of Shamva Primary School Development Committee, and charged them for undermining the authority of or insulting President Mugabe in contravention of Section 33 (2) (b) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9:23 or alternatively criminal nuisance as defined in Section 46 (2) (v) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act Chapter 9:23.

The three school authorities were accused of mocking President Mugabe on social media after they purportedly posted satirical pictures of the ruling Zanu PF party leader on Facebook.

Police claimed that the trio had “doctored” some degrading photographs of President Mugabe using the school computer and had shared a message through WhatsApp, which read; “Mr. President isn’t it time to bid farewell to the people of Zimbabwe”.