Zimbabwe under internet blackout as police patrol streets

by Reuters
Friday, 18 January 2019 10:18 GMT

* Econet Wireless ordered to shut down internet

* Blackout follows deadly protests over fuel price hikes

* Citizens venture out to seek food, supplies

* President accused of using Mugabe-era tactics

* MDC spokesman says blackout a cover for more violence

* (Adds opposition comment, Mawarire to face charges)

By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE, Jan 18 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe was under an internet blackout on Friday as authorities extended a communications ban to cover emails, while civilians ventured outside to stock up on food after days of deadly protests over fuel price hikes.

The government has said three people died during demonstrations that broke out on Monday after President Emmerson Mnangagwa raised fuel prices by 150 percent. Lawyers and activists say the toll was much higher and that security forces used violence and carried out mass arrests to quell the unrest.

As life returned to a semblance of normality in Harare, police continued to patrol the capital's streets, and Jacob Mafume, spokesman for the main Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party, said he feared the blackout was a prelude to more violence.

"The total shutdown of the internet is simply to enable crimes against humanity," he told Reuters.

"The world must quickly step in to remove this blanket of darkness that has been put on the country."

Authorities have yet to respond to the allegations of a crackdown by security forces, but increasing numbers of Zimbabweans believe Mnangagwa is falling back on the tactics of his predecessor Robert Mugabe in using intimidation to crush dissent.

The president has also failed to make good on pre-election pledges to kick-start the ailing economy, which is beset by high inflation and a currency shortage.

ACTIVIST MAWARIRE IN COURT

Authorities first cut off internet access on Tuesday, before briefly restoring some services on Wednesday. Friday's fuller shutdown also affected emails.

Zimbabwe's biggest mobile operator Econet Wireless said the government had ordered it to shut down services until further notice.

"We were served with another directive for total shutdown of the internet until further notice," Econet said in a statement.

"Our lawyers advised that we are required to comply (pending a court ruling)."

Due to the shutdown, banks were providing only partial services and no cash machines were working, a Reuters witness said, while long queues formed at petrol stations and shops.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment on the blackout, which critics say is an attempt to prevent images of heavy-handedness in dealing with protesters from being broadcast around the world.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights is representing more than 130 people arrested following the protests.

They include activist pastor Evan Mawarire, who appeared in court on Friday for magistrates to rule if he has a case to answer on charges of subverting the government.

Mawarire, who rose to prominence as a critic of Mugabe and led a national protest in 2016, was tried on similar charges in 2017 but acquitted for lack of evidence. He faces up to 20 years in jail if convicted.

Mawarire was arrested on Wednesday after encouraging Zimbabweans to heed a strike call from unions in social media posts. He was initially charged with the lesser offence of inciting public violence.

The charge sheet accused him of coercing workers to stay away from work and encouraging civil disobedience. (Writing by James Macharia; editing by John Stonestreet)

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