Zimbabwean police on Friday jailed and charged U.S. human rights activist and television producer Martha O’Donovan for attempting to overthrow the government of President Robert Mugabe by allegedly sending out a tweet deemed to be offensive, according to lawyers.
Police raided her apartment in the Zimbabwean capital, Harare, around 5 a.m. and took her to the Harare Central Police Station. She was charged in the late afternoon.
Police claimed O’Donovan had tweeted, “We are being led by a selfish man and a sick man,” and charged her under the country’s repressive laws.
The charge was much more serious than the charge initially anticipated by her lawyers, a charge of insulting the dignity of the president, which is illegal in Zimbabwe.
It was the first arrest in Zimbabwe since Mugabe recently established a Cyber Security Ministry, in an ominous sign of the country’s intensifying crackdown on activism and freedom of speech. The arrest suggested that Zimbabwe’s vibrant social media, one arena in which activists and citizens freely express dissent, is being targeted.
Mugabe, 92, is in frail health, frequently seen sleeping in international meetings and often traveling overseas for medical treatment. Despite his frailty, the president intends to seek re-election in the 2018 elections.
As his condition weakens, senior members of the ruling ZANU-PF party have been jockeying to succeed Mugabe, with a faction associated with his wife, Grace, struggling against another faction aligned with Deputy President Emmerson Mnangagwa, a former security minister with close ties to the country’s security operations.
O’Donovan works as a producer and project officer with local television network Magamba, which produces satirical content for distribution by Facebook and YouTube, designed to provoke activism and open up Zimbabwe’s democratic space.
The producer has been working with Magamba for about a year, according to network co-founder Tongai Makawa. She has also worked with the Children’s Radio Foundation, an organization that trains children in Africa to create their own radio programs.
O’Donovan was represented by Obey Shava, of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, an organization that often represents activists who are arrested in Zimbabwe. The organization tweeted a photograph of O’Donovan and her lawyer at the police station Friday.
Makawa said lawyers have told them that O’Donovan would likely have to spend the night in the police cells at Harare Central Police Station and may appear in court Saturday.
O’Donovan’s sister, Caroline O’Donovan, said the family did not wish to make a comment “at this time.”
Lawyers said the police decision to opt for the more serious charge of attempting to overthrow the government was dramatic.
“High drama in Zim as police currently preferring a charge of attempting to overthrow Mugabe govt against @Martha_ODonovan,” Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights said in a tweet.
Human rights and pro-democracy activists face arrest or being jailed in Zimbabwe. Some dissidents have simply disappeared.
The human rights organization Freedom House describes Zimbabwe as a nation that is only “partly free.” The organization says while social media remain partially free, the country’s media are far from free.
2017 report on world freedom. “The protests, combined with factional rivalries in the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) and a self-inflicted economic crisis, have further weakened the regime of 92-year-old president Robert Mugabe.”
In March 2015, pro-democracy activist Itai Dzamara was abducted by armed men from a barbershop and has not been seen since.
A pastor, Evan Mawarire, who founded a movement called #ThisFlag has been charged twice with attempting to overthrow the government. He was acquitted in September. Mawarire used social media to air his criticisms of Mugabe’s government.
In 2013, human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa was arrested and jailed for a week without charges being filed.
O’Donovan’s laptop and cellphone were confiscated by police when she was arrested Friday. Her colleagues at Magamba said they were puzzled why she was targeted and saw her arrest as an effort to muzzle free speech and intimidate activists.
“It’s one more violation of our already shrunken human rights space,” said Magamba’s co-founder Makawa. “It’s terrible, and unfortunate.”
Makawa said he believed O’Donovan was targeted because of the work she did for Magamba.
“We produce satirical content that speak the truth to power,” he said. “I think the nature of the work that we do at Magamba TV would be like low hanging fruit,” he said, referring to harassment of activists by the authorities. He said he was puzzled she was arrested but not himself or others.
”It could be a message to send to foreign nationals who are involved in the media,” he said. “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.
“It’s designed to whip people into line before the upcoming election,” he said, referring to elections due next year.
Another colleague from Magamba, Samm Farai Monro, who calls himself Comrade Fatso, tweeted the hashtags #FreeMartha and #ArrestUsAll.
A Zimbabwe media account tweeted a copy of the police warning issued to O’Donovan.
Zimbabwe’s economy is under severe pressure because of a shortage of hard currency. After a period of rampant hyperinflation, Zimbabwe had to abandon its currency and adopt the U.S. dollar in 2009. But the country recently started printing a new currency, the bond note, because of a shortage of dollars. The bond note is weakening rapidly on the foreign currency black market, prompting fears of a new round of skyrocketing inflation.