An American TV producer and journalist was arrested in Zimbabwe over a tweet in which she allegedly mocked President Robert Mugabe.
Martha O’Donovan, who is also a human rights activist, reportedly posted a message on social media that was deemed offensive by the country’s authorities. Police detained her after raiding her apartment and seized her laptop as well.
She was then taken to Harare Central Police Station and was later charged for “insulting the dignity” of the president and “attempting to overthrow” his government.
However, the tweet made no direct reference to Mugabe or mentioned his name.
Also, the Twitter account doesn’t mention it belongs to O’Donovan, who has a different Twitter handle.
The police said although the username is different, the tweets go back her IP address, which is why she was arrested by authorities.
A police statement allegedly signed by the TV producer said she "posted a message on Twitter using username @matigary which reads, 'We are being led by a selfish and sick man.’”
Interestingly, the tweets were still being posted from the account even after O’Donovan’s arrest.
O’Donovan has been working with local television network Magamba as a producer and project officer for about a year. The network aims to provoke activism and produces satirical content.
“It's one more violation of our already shrunken human rights space,” said Magamba's co-founder Toni Makawa. “It's terrible, and unfortunate. It could be a message to send to foreign nationals who are involved in the media. It's definitely designed to instill fear, because there was a resumption of activism and online conversations that were transforming into offline activism and engagement.”
Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director Muleya Mwananyanda also criticized the Zimbabwe government for the act, calling O’Donovan’s arrest a step towards silencing free speech in the country.
“This arrest marks the start of a sinister new chapter in the Zimbabwean government's clampdown on freedom of speech – and the new battleground is social media,” he said. “Following President Mugabe’s appointment of a minister for ‘Cyber Security’ last month, the detention of Martha O’Donovan appears to confirm fears that this new portfolio will simply be used to punish anyone speaking out against the authorities on social media platforms.”
Human rights activists in the country also fear the latest threat will mean more arrests of people who choose to speak against the government.
O’Donovan’s sister said the family didn’t wish to comment on the situation “at this time.”
While responding to the arrest, a U.S. state department official said ,“We are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in Zimbabwe. We stand ready to provide appropriate consular assistance for U.S. citizens. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
Soon after her arrest, a number of social media users and journalists came together to help O’Donovan and spread the news by using the hashtag #FreeMartha.
Credit : Reuters, Philimon Bulawayo