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Fighting Back Against Internet Shutdowns in Zimbabwe

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Internet shutdowns are on the rise. In 2023, 18 countries, including eight in Africa, experienced 124 shutdown events, according to Pulse. Although Zimbabwe was not one of these countries, it has experienced several confirmed and alleged shutdown events (Figure 1).
These events have happened during political unrest or protests, restricting access to information and communication platforms and preventing the dissemination of near real-time news and observations.

This is particularly inhibitive to human rights practitioners’ (HRPs) and human rights monitoring organizations’ (HRMOs) ability to document human rights violations during such times. Without well-choreographed and systematic pushback and the means to circumvent or mitigate the effects, government-imposed shutdowns will continue to hinder HRPs’ and HRMOs’ monitoring efforts.

Building on previous advocacy efforts, I recently surveyed 83 Zimbabwean HRPs to understand their challenges and concerns regarding Internet shutdowns to better support and prepare them to document and monitor human rights violations during such blackouts.

While the scope of the assessment focused on Zimbabwe, some of the findings and recommendations are useful to other African countries.

Little Support and Investment to Prepare for Shutdowns

All respondents unanimously agreed that Internet shutdowns impede the operations of their organizations. They had all experienced restrictions several times in the past, and this hindered the free flow of information from monitors to the HRMOs and vice versa.

The findings below reveal anxiety about future Internet shutdowns and little support and investment to prepare community members to circumvent government-imposed Internet disruptions.

  • 50.6% do not invest in predicting Internet shutdowns and do not have experience in this field.
  • 64% do not know organizations providing technical support to circumvent Internet shutdowns.
  • 65.1% believe that Zimbabwe is likely to experience a shutdown in 2024.
  • 65.1% claimed they work for organizations without communication strategies to overcome Internet shutdown challenges. 34.9% indicated that they have communication policies or manuals, but despite these manuals, they struggle to receive reports from their community monitors, particularly those in marginalized areas.
  • 91.6% of the respondents believe that human rights monitoring organizations (HRMOs) must strengthen their circumvention strategies.
  • 92.6% believe that HRPs should develop toolkits to circumvent Internet shutdowns.
Through a diverse range of perspectives were collected, the final report should be considered as a stepping stone for HRPs, HRMOs, and other civil society groups to strengthen and curate nuanced models that will enable them to document human rights violations during Internet shutdowns.

Such models should consider the following recommendations to prepare for Internet shutdowns before they occur.

  • Run campaigns imploring other civil society groups and citizens to download circumvention tools beforehand. Having multiple applications will provide options if some tools do not work.
  • Facilitate internal and community training on using Virtual Private Networks (VPNs), the Tor network, and mesh networks.
  • Seek support from digital rights activists on how to use Proxy servers or Hypergiants (HGs). The former serve as intermediaries between the users and websites, masking the user’s actual location and enabling access to blocked content. The latter installs servers inside other networks to serve users in those networks or their customers. This strategy localizes their content within the hosting network, reducing traffic crossing network boundaries.
  • Seek support from funding partners to establish Community Networks in marginalized parts of Zimbabwe. Read more about Community Networks.
  • Invest in Low Connection Publishing platforms such as Text services (Txti). This is a web service used to produce web pages with slow Internet. The service can also collate information in one place for easy access in areas with weak data connections.
View the full report.
Bright Chimedza is a Political Scientist with a passion for electoral processes, civic engagement, and strategic planning.

Source: Internet Society Pulse