There has been a surge in the use of virtual private network (VPNs) Applications by Zimbabweans ahead of the planned July 31st protests against President Emmerson Mnangagwa led government.

The protests are against corruption by top government officials including Mnangagwa and his family and were planned by opposition parties. Fears are high that the State would restrict access to social media and continue cracking down on citizens using the digital technologies. 

VPNs give people online privacy and anonymity by creating a private network from a public internet connection by masking their internet protocol (IP) address so their online actions are virtually untraceable, according to United States Norton antivirus service.

Media watchdogs including the Media Institute of southern Africa-Zimbabwe Chapter (Misa Zimbabwe) took to micro blogging site Twitter to advise Zimbabweans to use a free and open source software application for Android, iOS, and Desktop that employs end-to-end encryption, Signal and Psiphon Pro for safe and secure communication.

A public VPN service based in Canada, Tunnel Bear recorded nearly 12 times a spike in connections in Zimbabwe since the protests began. “Zimbabwe must keep it on. In light of this, we are giving away 10 Gigabyte of data for one month to our users in Zimbabwe to support them in this critical time,” reads part of the tweet.

Human rights abuse cases have escalated in Zimbabwe as the State is trying to suppress freedom of expression and the media. Award winning international journalist Hopewell Chin'ono was arrested last week on allegations of ‘inciting public violence’ using social media and is still behind bars as the High Court on Thursday, postponed his bail application to next week after the Magistrate Court denied him bail last week.

On Thursday police invaded an online media outlet, Zimlive editor Mduduzi Mathuthu accusing him of keeping and manufacturing subversive materials and inducing Zimbabweans to engage in public violence on the planned protests and is now in hiding.

“As organizations that believe in the power of the internet as an enabler of a myriad of human rights, we urgently call on Mnangagwa to ensure the internet and all other communication channels are open, secure, and accessible throughout Zimbabwe during the (planned) protests and thereafter,” the #KeepItOn coalition, a global network of human rights organizations that work to end internet shutdowns, said in a statement on Thursday. 

Felicia Anthonio, a #KeepItOn campaign lead at Access Now said enough is enough and internet shutdowns cannot be allowed to continually dampen democratic actions in Zimbabwe.

The Zimbabwean government has a history of shutting down the internet or restricting access to social media as in January 2019 when citizens protested over Mngagwa’s decision to hike fuel prices, there was an internet blackout following a directive from National Security minister Owen Ncube.

In 2016, under the Robert Mugabe regime there was a restriction in access to social media platforms in a bid to disrupt demonstrations planned under #ThisFlag social movement.

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