What is internet Censorship Like in Zimbabwe?
How much do you know about Zimbabwe? Probably only what you remember from geography class. However, our team became interested in how things are going with the internet and mobile communications in Zimbabwe, and the state of censorship and freedom of speech in this country.
Therefore, we continue our series of articles in which we talk about internet bans in different countries around the world.
If you missed the article about Turkmenistan and the internet in this country, you can read it here.
Average cost: $340 for 100 Mbit/s
For the first time, a rare few citizens of Zimbabwe discovered the internet in the first half of the 1990s. The country, a former British colony known as Rhodesia until 1980, inherited wonderful modern telephone lines. But, alas, telecommunications networks had fallen into disrepair after a decade and a half without proper care and maintenance.
The official authorities did not care about the internet at that time. In the first half of the 1990s, President Robert Mugabe paid much more attention to strengthening his power and to wars on the African continent. It is not surprising that, as a result, communications in Zimbabwe ended up with private companies.
The first internet provider in the country was the company Data Control & Systems, which was founded in 1994 by immigrants from South Africa. Today it’s hard to believe, but a couple of years later, it was named the best internet provider in the world.
Due to the economic and domestic political situation, home internet did not exist in the country as such. However, Data Control & Systems opened dozens of internet cafés across the country, where for relatively little money you could plunge into the World Wide Web.
At about the same time, the Zimbabwean billionaire Strive Masiyiwa founded the company Econet, which today is a monopolist in the telecommunications market of Zimbabwe. At the same time, it is widely present in many other countries, not only in Africa.
In five years, Econet has developed into a telecommunications giant, which today is the largest corporation in Zimbabwe.
Then, the company bought Data Control & Systems and became a monopoly in Zimbabwe. There were a couple of dozen other providers, but many of them mysteriously and literally disappeared.
In the late 1990s, the upstart internet company Samara Services rapidly captured most of the market by offering users very favorable conditions. However, a year later, the company’s top management disappeared, and the network collapsed in a matter of weeks.
Closer to the new millennium, the country’s authorities realized that the internet was a storehouse for replenishing the leaky treasury. So the POTRAZ regulator was established, which allocates bandwidth to private providers. One license, depending on the set of services that the company is going to provide, costs from $2 million to $4 million, plus 3.5% of revenue annually.
As for the prices for the miracle internet in Zimbabwe, they are high, although salaries in Zimbabwe is not as low as, for example, in Cuba. Data on average earnings in the country vary. In general, this figure appears to be more than $500. At the same time, 100-megabit internet will cost about $340 per month.
It is unreasonably expensive, but there is a nuance: in Zimbabwe, almost no fixed-line internet is used, with people vastly preferring cellular communication.
Mobile internet through the court
Data Control & Systems, and then Econet, tried to fix the situation. As a result, fiber-optic lines are being installed, but it is irrational to lay them further than the capital Harare.
Today, almost the entire population of Zimbabwe uses the internet, but in 97% of cases, we are talking about a mobile network. The first GSM network appeared in the country precisely at the same time as in our country – in 1998. This right was given to Econet and Strive Masiyiwa only after a protracted fight. Otherwise, everything could have happened a few years earlier.
The fact is that the Zimbabwean government already had claims against the “rich upstart” Masiyiwa. Therefore, they refused to give him a license for cellular communication services, even for money. Then a strange thing happened: Masiyiwa filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe and won! Does it seem hard to believe in this scenario?
The lawsuit lasted for several years. Strive pointed out that the ban on issuing a license violates the “freedom of expression of a citizen.” Finally, the Zimbabwean court, considered one of the most respected and fair on the continent, decided to allow Econet to provide cellular communication services. The first subscriber connected to the network in 1998.
Today, three companies provide mobile communication services in Zimbabwe. In 2009, 3G appeared in the country, and four years later, 4G. The largest operator is Liquid Telcom, a subsidiary of Econet. It also provides almost half of Africa with communications.
Everything is fine with mobile prices, which explains the popularity of mobile internet against the background of stationary. Without discounts and packages, they only ask for one cent for one MB. That is, one GB of traffic costs a little more than $10. If it is not quite cheap, it’s at least acceptable. Moreover, in various service packages the cost will be several times less.
And yet, we cannot say that everything is more or less good with the internet in Zimbabwe. The thing is that the local dictatorship has been trying to limit it and put it in a framework for more than 20 years – it turns out, with varying success.
It all started with the law on telecommunications, adopted on March 8, 2000. At the request of state agencies, the law obliged providers to intercept and control the e-mail of individuals “for national security and maintaining law and order.”
In response, the providers brazenly and purposefully stated that the law violated the rights of citizens and filed a lawsuit with the Constitutional Court – the same one that previously supported the founder of Econet. The government also recalled that internet service providers “work only by the grace of the president.”
Two amazing events followed. Firstly, for some reason, no one has removed the providers, and their managers have not even been put in jail. Secondly, the court once again did its job and declared the law unconstitutional.
By that time, the government had already established complete control over television and radio, and several dozen journalists of the largest independent newspaper were arrested. The only means of communication where calls for protests against the Mugabe regime were spread was the internet. By the way, less than 1% of the population used it then.
In 2004, Mugabe made a second attempt to take control of the Internet. According to the new bill, providers were not allowed to access international traffic if they refused to inform state agencies about “the facts of using the network in anti-state activities.” In fact, it was again about tracking email with “offensive” or “dangerous” content.
The providers rebelled again, saying that the government’s requirements could not be met, even technically. Some were outraged that they were being made into internet police, while others said that they would rather close down than agree to spy on their customers.
And so it happened. Several companies were closed, the rest were forced to follow the lead of Mugabe, who by that time had gained control of the Constitutional Court. In the future, providers were also required to intercept mobile traffic and bear all related costs. At the same time, several new organizations were created to monitor the “purity of the internet.”
Funny things happened before every presidential election. The authorities hacked the e-mails of journalists and arrested those who allowed themselves to speak out against Mugabe. In state institutions, all electronic correspondence was filtered for the presence of “anti-state” messages. Once, the police covered an entire internet café, from which a letter was sent insulting the president. 40 people were detained – all the visitors of the institution.
In 2013, the country held a referendum on a new constitution. In preparation for a serious political step, the police conducted hunts for … radio receivers. In Zimbabwe, they could not be listened to without a special license – and here there were just hundreds of such receivers, listening to which was not allowed.
The West was accused of spreading them, allegedly secretly importing hundreds of receivers into Zimbabwe to expose its terrible anti-human values. At the same time, mobile phones were confiscated during the raids, because they have memory cards where you can download anti-government information.
In 2017, the country established a council of censors headed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs. This body is designed to combat the spread of “extremist” information on the Internet.
Learn more about internet censorship worldwide here.
No matter how prosaic it may sound, although Mugabe is no longer alive, his work lives on.
Two years ago, thousands of protests broke out in Zimbabwe. The authorities called them planned terrorist attacks on peaceful people and ordered providers to turn off the internet in the country. The founder of Econet, Strive Masiyiwa, said that he was forced to comply with the order, because otherwise the company’s management was threatened with imprisonment.
In the end, the same court that we have already mentioned more than once decided to return the internet immediately. And it was returned, but at a new price – twice as expensive as before the protests.
Let’s agree that it is difficult to be indifferent when in some countries there is such a strict ban on freedom of speech and actions, and strict censorship of the internet is introduced.
Unfortunately, this is the situation in many countries. Therefore, the 1984 team has developed a unique closed ecosystem completely devoid of surveillance, censorship, and any restrictions. Utopia P2P is a new word in the Internet environment, which has a huge potential for development.
You can read more about the benefits here.