Martha O’Donovan, a United States citizen and Magamba TV journalist who allegedly called 93-year-old Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe a “selfish and sick man” on Twitter, was arrested early on Friday morning on a charge of “undermining the authority of or insulting the president,” the Associated Press reports.
In a signed statement shared with the AP, O’Donovan denied the allegations levied against her, calling them “baseless and malicious.”
O’Donovan’s lawyer, Obey Shava, was also detained, according to The Guardian. Shava told the outlet that her client was additionally charged with plotting to overthrow a constitutionally elected government, a new offense in Zimbabwe. According to Shava, the tweet in question came from the Twitter handle @matigary. Its author stated “We are being led by a selfish and sick man.” According to a police charge sheet, the tweet included a picture of Mugabe with a catheter.
Zimbabwe Lawyers For Human Rights (ZLHR) has represented more than 200 individuals arrested on charges related to insulting the president, who has a lengthy history of alleged human rights abuses. But according to the organization, the authoritarian Mugabe regime’s development of a new cybersecurity ministry has created a fresh threat to freedom of expression in the country. The Mugabe government’s creation of a new offense for plotting to overthrow the government has also raised eyebrows, with critics fearing that it will become yet another tool with which to suppress individual liberty and freedom of expression.
According to ZLHR, O’Donovan’s purported tweet never mentioned Mugabe by name, but seemed to criticize the president in the wake of video that went viral on social media, which showed the president’s stepson importing two Rolls Royce vehicles — the only two to enter the inflation-ridden and deeply impoverished country in recent months. The human rights group claims that O’Donovan’s arrest is the first to come as a direct result of a recent Mugabe administration crackdown on cyber activity, which is being spearheaded by a newly appointed cybersecurity minister.
— ZLHR (@ZLHRLawyers) November 3, 2017
Each year, Reporters Without Borders compiles a “press freedom index” that indicates how freely journalists and speakers are allowed to work in countries around the world. In 2017, Zimbabwe ranks at number 128, having dropped four places down since 2016. This year, Zimbabwe is sandwiched between the Philippines and Colombia on the index. In light of the country’s continued suppression of media outlets and journalists, both foreign and domestic, it seems unlikely that the Mugabe administration will reverse its course.
On its website, Reporters Without Borders claims that Zimbabwe has “draconian laws” relating to freedom of speech and freedom of the press:
Although the constitution was amended in 2013, Zimbabwe’s media legislation has not evolved and continues to be very oppressive. It provides for heavy sentences for coverage of protests, governmental corruption, unemployment or poverty, and the authorities still often target journalists. There were many cases of journalists being harassed, arrested, convicted, or physically attacked during a wave of protests in 2016. Foreign reporters are also targeted. Two of them were expelled in July 2016 despite having accreditation.
Transparency International, a nonprofit organization dedicated to exposing international governmental corruption, ranks Zimbabwe among the 22 most corrupt regimes in the world. And according to Human Rights Watch, another international NGO, the Mugabe administration is currently “grabbing power from its constitutional court.”
The government of President Robert Mugabe continues to violate human rights without regard to protections in the country’s 2013 constitution. It has intensified repression against thousands of people who peacefully protest human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation. Police use excessive force to crush dissent, and violate the basic rights of civil society activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and government opponents. Widespread impunity for abuses by the police and state security agents remains. President Mugabe has undermined the independence of the judiciary and of the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) through verbal assaults on the two institutions.
President Mugabe is no stranger to controversy. These developments come just two weeks after the World Health Organization rescinded Mugabe’s appointment as a “goodwill ambassador” due to the president’s record of human rights abuses, to the satisfaction of at least two dozen health groups and countless NGOs. (RELATED: WHO Rescinding Appointment Of Mugabe As Goodwill Ambassador)