The president of Zimbabwe is being sued over internet shutdown

Zimbabwean president Emmerson Mnangagwa, together with the country’s three mobile networks, are the target of legal action related to six days of internet blackouts

The Zimbabwean president is being sued for cutting internet access in the south-east African country on two separate occasions last week

A group of top Zimbabwean lawyers has asked the country’s high court to declare the closure of the internet illegal after the government blocked access to social media services on two occasions last week.

The shutdown was triggered by ongoing protests against a surge in fuel prices

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights and the Zimbabwe outpost of the Media Institute of Southern Africa together filed a petition on January 18 against President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the country’s three internet providers. The legal group is arguing that the move was unconstitutional, inhibiting business operations and even threatening the lives of Zimbabweans.

Internet access in the South-East African country was cut on the morning of January 15 and again on January 18 by the three telecoms firms operating in the region, at the request of Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. According to Reuters, Econet, the country’s largest mobile operator, told its customers by text: “We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control.”

Econet said later on January 18 that it had received an instruction from the government to restore internet access, with the exception of some social media applications. It has also said that it will reimburse customers for mobile data that they were unable to use during the shutdown.

The shutdown was triggered by ongoing protests against a surge in fuel prices that have taken the lives of at least 12 people, according to local rights groups. It is alleged that the government is seeking to limit access in order to prevent the transmission of images showing violent action taken by security forces to dispel protestors.

The UN has urged the Zimbabwean Government to end the “excessive use of force” by security forces, which reportedly includes door-to-door searches and the use of live ammunition. “This is not the way to react to the expression of economic grievances by the population,” UN spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said in a statement on January 18.

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, whose members include MISA and Amnesty International, said in a statement that it had recorded at least 844 human rights abuses during the internet shutdown. It described the blockade as “unwarranted, unjustifiable in the circumstances and… a tool of repression meant to mask the massive human rights violations which the state was preparing to commit.”

The president’s spokesman, George Charamba, told the state-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper that the shutdown was “just a foretaste of things to come,” playing on rising concerns that the country is reverting to dictatorial rule.

Many, including the opposition MDC party, see parallels between the actions of President Mnangagwa and his predecessor Robert Mugabe; this latest restriction of access to the internet and to unbiased information is likely to augment those concerns.