/ 6 July 2016

Zimbabwe government blocks WhatsApp as workers stay away

Staying power: President Robert Mugabe has joked about previous reports of his death
Staying power: President Robert Mugabe has joked about previous reports of his death

The Zimbabwe government on Wednesday blocked the WhatsApp service to its citizens as the country’s workers heeded calls for a stayaway dubbed the “national shutdown” to put pressure on the regime in power in the Southern African country for almost four decades.

By 7am it was no longer possible to send or receive WhatsApp messages on any of the country’s mobile telecommunication networks, in a move subscribers blamed on the government, which in turn blamed the social network for spreading falsehoods and inciting people to protest. Only those using wi-fi had access beyond 7am but they too were shut out by mid-morning.

Minister for Information, Communication Technology and Courier Services Supa Mandiwanzira denied any government interference in the WhatsApp service, saying government had no reason to ban or block the use of the service because of a few individuals who abused the platform.

‘Only network problems’
The youthful minister said it could have been just a network problem as he was communicating on his WhatsApp with his colleagues.

He alleged government was actually resisting demands by the mobile operators to ban the platform and others such as Viber and Skype, which they believed were losing them revenue.

“I as minister and on behalf of the government have resisted these demands because we see their value to Zimbabweans. So there is no basis that I as minister or government will work up to ban them when we are on the forefront of denying the request by operators,” he said.

“We know there are elements, very few of them, who abuse the platform but they must not be allowed to spoil its very good use by the majority of citizens,” he said.

Citizens, on the other hand, were sending text messages to encourage each other to download TunnerBear from tunnerbear.com to get back online, but this download was also proving to be very difficult for many.

Stayaway call heeded
The move by the government also seemed to have come a little too late as most of the people in Harare had decided not to go to work, with those who wanted to report for duty facing serious transport problems as very few public passenger vehicles were on the road.

The few commuter omnibus operators who ignored the call to park their vehicles in solidarity with the protesters were charging fares as high as $2 a single trip instead of the normal 50 cents.

Very few shops opened for business in the central business district, with the TM Supermarkets branch on Harare Street the only open shop in downtown Harare.

The main commuter omnibus rank, Copacabana, which is usually congested, was deserted as only a handful of vehicles was seen dropping off and picking up passengers.