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Zimbabwe Cracks Down on Online Dissent

A two-screenshot combo shows the Zimbabwe Media Center and Zimbabwe Sentinel newspaper websites, April 11, 2016.

The Zimbabwean government has ordered a blogger who wrote a report critical of President Robert Mugabe to report to police Tuesday. Press freedom advocates says the summons is just the latest action in a broader government campaign to silence dissent in online media.

The head of the Zimbabwe Media Center, Ernest Mudzengi, and two of his colleagues were summoned by police on Thursday and Friday. The Media Center provides facilities to freelance reporters and runs the web site for the Zimbabwe Sentinel newspaper.

Police questioned Mudzengi for nine hours over a Sentinel article on an alleged plot to bomb a dairy plant owned by the first family. Police have summoned the blogger, Mlondozi Ndlovu, who wrote the piece.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya runs the Zimbabwe office of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, known by its acronym MISA.

“The police are now trying to harass the journalists under the pretext that they are investigating a story that they would have carried," said Ngwenya. "Spending hours in a police cell being interrogated on a story which itself happened publicly is chilling enough for any journalist who intends to pursue sensitive stories. For us as MISA, we condemn this practice which is rearing its ugly head in our journalism. And we call upon the authorities to just stop it forthwith as it is sending a chilling effect among media practitioners.

In 2002, Zimbabwe made it illegal to “denigrate” President Mugabe.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights says that just since August, they have assisted 127 people arrested for posts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

The latest case is that of a 46-year-old Zimbabwean whose trial is scheduled to start in late April. The man was arrested after he posted photos of Mugabe on What'sApp that authorities said showed the 92-year leader as frail and “incapacitated.”

President Mugabe told supporters last week the government is cracking down on what he called “abuses” on the internet.

Mugabe said his government would be looking into security measures the Chinese government has put in place to stop these online abuses.

Facebook, YouTube and Google are among the web sites blocked in mainland China. Numerous foreign news sites have also been blocked, including VOA. In April, China blocked access to Time magazine and The Economist over articles critical of the Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information, Communication and Technology, Supa Mandiwanzira, has not given details on what controls are coming but he said this weekend that the new measures “would not be shallow."