The government of Zimbabwe has issued a nationwide internet shutdown following a week of widespread civil unrest.
According to a Facebook post by the founder of the largest telecommunications company, Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, “authorities in Zimbabwe have directed that all internet services be shut down.”
The move follows mass protests which broke out on Monday, January 14 after the price of petrol increased by 150% overnight, climbing from $1.35 to $3.33 per liter – making it the most expensive in the world.
Since the beginning of the disturbances, social media networks have been blocked and there has been several temporary internet blackouts in an attempt to thwart coordinated protests.
The streets of Harare were deserted throughout the week as thousands took part in a general strike. However, scenes of violence and looting soon broke out, which were met with a heavy-handed response from the authorities.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has told the Associated Press that they’ve treated eighty six gunshot wounds and over one hundred cases of ‘assaults with sharp objects, booted feet, [and] baton sticks’ as a result of the clashes.
According to Owen Ncube, the Minister of State Security, over 600 arrests were made during the week. However, the UN has denounced the reported ‘excessive use of force’ by the security forces.
Zimbabweans had briefly rejoiced as Emmerson Mnangagwa succeeded Robert Mugabe in 2017. However, fears of the return of autocratic rule have been amplified by the extensive use of police force, corruption and a crippling currency shortage.
Strict censorship and tight controls on internet access also appear to be diminishing the hopes of a peaceful and democratic future under Mnangagwa.
Jacob Mafume, the spokesperson for the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party said that “the total shutdown of the internet is to enable crimes against humanity.”
The government has responded by claiming that the “full responsibility for compensation for victims of the violence, destruction of property, injury and loss of life [lays with] the MDC Alliance.”
The internet blackout means citizens have been unable to coordinate protests and reach out to journalists outside of the country. It has also caused major disruption to businesses and banks as no cash machines are in operation.
According to a report by Top10VPN, the number of VPN-specific searches coming from Zimbabwe have increased by over 850% with people attempting to find ways to bypass the shutdown. However, some VPN providers have also been blocked.
It is yet to be seen how long the current internet blackout is intended to last, while the civil unrest appears set to continue.