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Potraz denies throttling the internet

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THE launch of the opposition Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) led by Nelson Chamisa last Sunday overwhelmed Zimbabwe’s internet connectivity, sparking fears that the authorities in Harare had throttled access to the World Wide Web, but the country’s telecommunication regulator has denied this.

BERNARD MPOFU

Zimbabwe, which has one of the highest data service tariffs in the world, has in the past been criticised for slowing down the internet service to silence dissenters during and after major political events.

Chamisa, who for months appeared to be largely hibernating after he lost control of the Movement for Democratic Change, last Sunday launched a new party which analysts said would offer strong opposition to the ruling Zanu PF.

The rally, dubbed “Yellow Sunday”, was the campaign launch for the new political party which seeks to unseat Zanu PF. Thousands turned up in support of Chamisa, creating a sea of yellow, the CCC’s colour.

Gift Machengete, director-general of the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), told delegates attending the launch of the country’s first 5G network that high traffic had caused the sluggish internet connection, and not censorship.

“Only this week I read an article…The article purported that internet slowdown experienced last Sunday was deliberate as it was meant to scuttle media coverage of an opposition political party’s event,”  Machengete said during Econet Wireless’ 5G launch. 

“The article blamed the regulator, it blamed all the operators, it alsoblamed the ministry of ICT and by extension government. As regulator, I know these accusations are false. The internet was not tampered with, but this was a case of too much traffic at the same time which overwhelmed the networks. Everybody was downloading videos, everybody sending out videos at the same time and they were so many. Such is the characteristic of 4G. Now what is the customer case? With 5G, glitches of this nature are going to be a thing of the past.”

Over 130 vacant parliamentary and council seats fell vacant when several politicians were recalled after Chamisa lost a legal battle for the control of the MDC while other slots arose after legislators died. By-elections to fill the posts are slated for 26 March. 

A statement from NetBlocks, a cybersecurity and internet governance watchdog, confirmed the significant slowdown of internet services for many users in Zimbabwe on Sunday as the CCC rally was taking place at the Zimbabwe Grounds in Highfield, Harare. 

The slowdown in services, according to experts, affected several internet providers, with many reaching low reachability rates of between 50% and 60 percent.

“The incident impacted multiple operators and has prevented livestreaming from the Yellow Sunday demonstration by the Citizens’ Coalition for Change (CCC) party, which seeks to unseat the ruling Zanu PF,” said NetBlocks.

The Media Institute of Southern  Africa, a regional media advocacy organisation, said the sluggish internet connectivity had hampered journalists from carrying out their work.

It is not the first time the Zimbabwean authorities have tampered with the internet. On 15 January 2019, protests against the rising price of fuel swept the country, triggering a political backlash. Back then, NetBlocks reported internet shutdowns which rapidly proceeded to have nationwide impact.

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