Update August 22, 2023 17:20 BST: Netblocks has confirmed internet service degradation in Zimbabwe on the evening of the elections.
As people in Zimbabwe get ready to head to the polls on August 23, fears that the government will shut down the internet are growing in and out of the country.
Governments in Africa and beyond have increasingly implemented internet shutdowns in recent years—especially during political crises. For example, since June, people in Senegal are battling against disruptions.
Considering the gravity of the upcoming presidential elections, among other issues, Zimbabwe suffered the highest recorded spike in inflation worldwide. It's fair to say an information blackout is a potential threat citizens might need to cope with.
While social societies urge the government to keep the internet open over these crucial days, experts now recommend citizens get a trustworthy VPN service to be able to face potential disruptions. So, how likely is it for the internet in Zimbabwe to go dark?
How likely is an internet blackout in Zimbabwe?
"Zimbabwe has previously disrupted internet access during protests and opposition activities," Felicia Anthonio, #KeepItOn Campaign Manager at Access Now told TechRadar. "Monitoring by the #KeepItOn coalition shows that when countries shut down the internet, they are very likely to do it again."
Zimbabwe pulled the plug off the internet six times since 2015 so far. Especially relevant, in 2019 the government implemented a three-day internet shutdown amid public protest triggered by increased fuel prices.
In 2022, the internet was then intermittently disrupted in an attempt to interfere with a rally held by the opposition party Citizens' Coalition for Change—exactly the party running against the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa in the upcoming elections.
On this point, Egle Grasys from Surfshark told us: "Although none of these restrictions were related to elections, three of them happened in 2022 amid either opposition protests or rallies. So, the possibility of internet restrictions around the time of the elections should not be dismissed."
.@accessnow and the #KeepItOn coalition through an open letter are demanding authorities in Zimbabwe to ensure unfettered access to the internet throughout next week's elections. Read our letter: https://t.co/f7eHLuKFba @edmnangagwa @Potraz_zw @econetzimbabwe @ZECzim #KeepItOnAugust 18, 2023
The government "has shown a propensity to actually want to shut down the internet," said again lawyer and researcher Thobekile Matimbe from the Paradigm Initiative during a Twitter Space held by Access Now on August 9. "As a democratic society, this is not right."
To complicate things there are also a series of laws and provisions which have increasingly been used to undermine free speech and press freedom across the country. Many journalists as well as citizens expressing their political opinions online have already been arrested for allegedly spreading fake news and/or attempting to overthrow the government.
Yet to be enforced, an infamous amendment to the Criminal Court Law deemed as the Patriotic Bill has also the potential to make these charges even more frequent.
"It is therefore important that, as we work towards elections, we also consider bringing in lawyers who are able to properly understand the legal framework regarding our digital laws," said Wilbert Mandinde, Program Coordinator at the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum.
What's at stake for Zimbabweans?
As mentioned before, the current presidential elections are crucial for Zimbabweans who are struggling against a rampant economic crisis and an 86.5% inflation rate on prices. On top of this grim situation, businesses are coping with power outages and an unstable local currency, too. Allegations of corruption also remain one of the major social issues in the country.
"Wednesday's elections will provide an opportunity for the people of Zimbabwe to choose their leaders for the next five years," said Anthonio. They continued: "It is an opportunity for them to hold their government and leaders accountable by taking stock of what policies and developments have been achieved in the last five years."
Despite the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission approving 11 candidates, the victory will mainly be contested between two men: current president Mnangagwa (Zanu-PF party) who led the country since 2017, against opposition leader Nelson Chamisa from the CCC party who came second during the latest elections in 2018.
Citizens need to head to the polls on August 23 to elect councilors, members of parliament, and the new president. To win, a candidate needs to get more than 50% of the vote. If there will be no outright winner, a run-off is set to be held six weeks later on October 2.
"Shutting down the internet during such a crucial election could exclude voices and deny people their right to actively participate in the electoral process," explained Anthonio.
"Elections aren’t just about voting, they are about contributing to the national discourse, scrutinizing political manifestos, and following the monitoring, counting, and announcement of election results."
That's why Access Now and a group of digital rights experts signed an open letter pledging the government to restrain from implementing such a practice while taking the necessary precautions to provide high-quality, secure, unrestricted, and uninterrupted internet access throughout the election period. No response was given, so far.
How a VPN and other security software can help
"It's not enough just to discuss internet shutdowns," said Nqaba Matshazi, Programs Officer at digital rights group Misa Zimbabwe. "We need a plan for when it happens." For citizens, this translates to being ready to overcome online disruptions, whenever possible.
Despite not helping in case of a total blackout, a VPN and other circumventing tools allow citizens to bypass internet throttling and other geo-restrictions. That's why these tools spoof users' real IP location, making them appear as if they are browsing from an entirely different country within seconds.
Shutting down the internet could deny people their right to actively participate in the electoral process
We invite readers in need to head to our best free VPN guide and download the safest freebie out there prior to the big day.
The Tor browser is another useful tool to grant access to the unrestricted internet—and it's completely free to use, too.
"We have partnered with many global news outlets, social media sites, and messaging platforms to launch onion sites—which enable people to securely and anonymously access, share, and publish information, bypassing censorship regardless of their location," Pavel Zoneff from the Tor Project told us.
Zoneff recommends downloading the latest version of the Tor browser as this offers automated censorship detection and circumvention features. He also suggests to those willing to help people in Zimbabwe in case of shutdowns to run snowflakes proxies directly from their devices. More information is available from the Tor Project.
"This is an easy way for every internet user to help more people access the Tor network more easily and is safe for the end user, as the traffic only indicates a Tor node, not which sites are being navigated to," he said.
Grasys from Surfshark also suggests checking out this tutorial on how to survive the internet for further tips on how to cope with total shutdowns, including things such as satellite internet or international SIM cards. While Anthonio invites citizens to report any disruptions they may face to Access Now via #KeepItOn.