How Zimbabweans stayed online when government shut down the internet

18 January 2019 - 07:30 By James Thompson
The Zimbabwean government shut down the internet this week during massive civil unrest sparked by a fuel price hike.
The Zimbabwean government shut down the internet this week during massive civil unrest sparked by a fuel price hike.
Image: Gallo Images/iStockphoto

When government played its heavy hand on freedom of speech by shutting down social media space, Zimbabweans were ready to counter it.

On the first day of riots sparked by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s 120 percent fuel hike, live video footage, news updates and breaking news made their way to the world through Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter.

The news was that the state was losing the fight to contain charging rioters who moved from the high-density suburbs of Bulawayo and Harare into the two cities’ central business districts.

It didn’t take long for the minister of state security, Owen Ncube, to instruct network providers to shut down the internet. However, news had started filtering out hours before the minister gave the directive and social media activists in Zimbabwe made people aware of how to bypass state censorship through Virtual Private Network (VPN).

On January 15 2019, Zimbabweans woke up to a total shutdown, but those who had downloaded VPN settings stayed online until the internet was restored briefly around 4pm on Wednesday. About 30 minutes later, internet was blocked again, but more people had downloaded VPN settings.

“It’s impossible to keep us out now. If they block a VPN server, there are many out there and most of them are all over the world. The one I’m using is based in Japan,” said a journalist.

At least three people have died and more than 100 injured following protests against the Zimbabwean government. Doctors say they've seen evidence of gunshot wounds and dog bites.

Nonetheless, Twitter and Facebook remained out of reach for many.

For some, even with VPN connections using WhatsApp has been hard because of slow connectivity. As such, little-known applications in the country, such as Telegram, provided relief.

“Some of these repressive governments can do all they want and spend millions of dollars on jamming equipment that can be bypassed by a 20 megabyte application available on Google Playstore,” said a journalist.


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