Today is Wednesday 8th November. I am just back from the High Court where Martha O’Donovan’s bail hearing has been postponed because the state has not handed in required papers – a standard delaying tactic. This means that Martha (A US citizen) will spend at least one more night in the maximum security section of Chikurubi prison.
If you’re on Zimbabwean social media, you might have heard the name Martha O’Donovan, and seen #FreeMartha. Heck, if you’re outside Zim you might have come across it in international media. Asides from her friends and social circle here in Harare though, most people don’t know her from a bar of soap.
Who is Martha? I first met this young lady in the context of Shoko Festival. I met a lively, intelligent girl interested in music, brought here by her interest in genuine (and mostly underground) hip-hop. When she arrived here, a guest to our country, she knew nothing of local politics, and didn’t really care. She cared about her work, meeting people, getting involved in the creative scene. Like many visitors to our beautiful country, she fell in love with our places and people.
So why was she arrested? What could a personable and charming young person like her possibly have done to deserve incarceration in Chikurubi? The short answer is nothing.
Martha was arrested on a pretext. When the police picked her up, apparently under instructions from Chinamasa’s dubious new ministry, they said she had insulted or undermined the President. Later the charge of subverting a constitutionally elected government was added. A quick look at Zimbabwean twitter postings will show a plethora of such opinions. Why are none of the others behind bars? And in the first place, what justifies muzzling our constitutional right to free expression?
It is in the timing. Elections are approaching, young people are disenchanted with the government and starting to organize and mobilize against its perennial injustice and corruption. And Moto Republik, Magamba Network’s tech hub, is a creative space full of young minds, a place where progressive, free thinking Zimbabweans meet and work together, resulting in such satirical comedy as Zambezi News and #TheWeek. And to a regime that uses propaganda, misinformation and suppression as means to maintain its shaky grip on power, that sort of space is a threat. They have already tried to use City Council to tear it down on a pretext, which failed. This is part of an ongoing persecution of a bastion of free speech and online journalism. And Martha is caught in the crossfire, an arbitrary target for this regime’s increasingly bizarre acts of repression.
So even if you don’t know Martha, you can support her as an innocent young person being unjustly prosecuted. But at the end of the day, this isn’t about Martha. It’s about you. The second and more important reason you should stand with Martha is that this is the first and surely not the last such case where the new cyber-ministry and bogus claims of cyber-security concerns are used to violate constitutional rights in Zimbabwe. This means that the government will use the pretext of a tweet, a facebook post, perhaps even hearsay, to arbitrarily deprive us of our freedom and tie us up in lengthy and exhausting court proceedings. So this is why you must fight. Rights are just words on paper until they are exercised. Oppressors will never give them to you easily; you must claim them and defend them. And this is the time and opportunity to defend your right to speak freely using the internet and mobile devices. Evan Mawarire was acquitted not least because there were thousands of people outside Rotten Row Magistrates court. So I urge you, speak out. Tweet #FreeMartha. Come to High court tomorrow Thursday 9 November 2017 in solidarity. Not for Martha, for YOU.