VPNs are now a part of life for Zimbabweans trying to get around a government internet shutdown

Locked up and shut down.
Locked up and shut down.
Image: AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi
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In the wake of nationwide internet shutdowns, ordinary Zimbabweans are circumventing censorship through VPNs.

Zimbabwean authorities shut down the internet on Tuesday (Jan. 19) following widespread protests that led to the deaths of at least six people and the arrest of more than 600. Zimbabweans have been demonstrating against a 150% fuel price hike that would only make life more difficult in an already battered economy.

By Friday (Jan. 18), the internet was restored with some reporting access to Twitter, but Whatsapp, Facebook and YouTube remained blocked. That’s when Zimbabweans turned to VPNs to stay in contact.  VPNs (Virtual Private Network) use a technology that circumvents geographical restrictions and censorship while keeping one’s location and identity unknown.

The blackout has left Zimbabweans disconnected from the world, particularly from the Zimbabwean diaspora. Independent YouTube news outlets, like Bustop TV and 263Chat have effectively been silenced. Lawmakers in the US Senate joined calls from groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists to restore full internet access. A three-day internet blackout could cost Zimbabwe over $17 million in lost income and other revenue, according to digital rights organization Access Now.

Non-governmental organizations such as the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa-Zimbabwe) and Magamba Network tweeted advice on how to ue VPNs.

“I am excited that even if it is assumed by the state that we are offline, VPNs brought us back online,” said Raymond Makuwaza, a young man from the city of Mutare who prefers Psiphon Pro.

Rest Makware, a student,  said Thunder VPN has become part of his life, using it to access blocked apps.“When the government ordered our mobile service providers to shut down certain media platforms I had no access to my favorite sites,” he told Quartz., a UK-based service, said it had seen a 1,500% jump in VPN searches by Zimbabweans. A similar rise was seen in Uganda last year after the government introduced a social media tax.

The Zimbabwean government ostensibly blocked internet access to prevent activists from organizing after thousands heeded a call from the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions. Authorities threatened the executives of telcos who refused to comply with a hefty fine or up to three years imprisonment, according to Strive Masiyiwa, the founder of Zimbabwe’s largest mobile service provider, Econet. Authorities also arrested pastor Evan Mawarire, the founder of the social media and YouTube movement #ThisFlag, who also called for demonstrations.

Zanu PF government is blaming its “enemies for using social media to try to subvert a constitutionally elected government,” state security minister Owen Ncube said in  a televised press briefing. During the era of former president Robert Mugabe, the government blocked WhatsApp and appointed a minister to monitor social media use to stop dissent online.

Additional reporting by Lynsey Chutel

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