Global Freedom of Expression

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights v. Minister of State, National Security

Order Handed Down Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Electronic / Internet-based Communication
  • Date of Decision
    January 21, 2021
  • Outcome
    Order Only
  • Case Number
    HC 261/19
  • Region & Country
    Zimbabwe, Africa
  • Judicial Body
    First Instance Court
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law
  • Themes
    Internet Shutdowns

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Zimbabwean High Court held that an order to shut down internet services was unlawful, and ordered that all telecommunications service providers restore access to their subscribers. 

Columbia Global Freedom of Expression notes that some of the information contained in this report was derived from secondary sources.


In January 2019, Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions called for a national stay-away. Many individuals were arrested in connection with this stay-away. On the second day, January 15, access to internet and social media platforms, including WhatsApp and Facebook, was interrupted in Zimbabwe. The Minister of State, Owen Ncube, had issued orders under the Interception of Communications Act (the Act) to shut down the internet in the country. One of the telecommunications service providers, Econet, issued a statement that “Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security through the Director-General of the President’s Department acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, internet services are currently suspended across all networks and internet service providers. We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control.”

The Zimbabwean chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) filed an urgent application at the High Court in Harare.

Decision Overview

Judge Owen Tagu issued the Court’s provisional order.

The MISA and ZLHR sought an order that revoked Minister Ncube’s order and that prohibited the State from shutting down the internet in the future. They also asked the Court to ensure that the warrant of interception be released to the public. 

MISA and ZLHR argued that the shutdown was impacting ordinary Zimbabweans and businesses, and was a violation of the right to freedom of expression protected by section 61 of the Constitution. They submitted that the Act was unconstitutional in that it permitted a member of the executive to issue a warrant for interception of communication which should be solely a judicial responsibility, and that its wide application infringed the rights to freedom of expression and privacy. 

The Court held that the Act was directly administered by the President and so the Minister had no authority to issue an order under the law. Accordingly, it set aside the Minister’s orders. The Court also ordered that all telecommunication services providers in Zimbabwe “unconditionally resume the provision of full and unrestricted internet services”. 

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

While the judgment was not as strong as the parties had hoped, it clearly established that a Cabinet Minister may not order the interruption of internet services in Zimbabwe. Despite MISA and ZLHR raising the constitutionality of the legislation, the Court did not engage with the legality of the provisions. However, given the repressive government in Zimbabwe the judiciary decided this matter according to the law, in a period of social unrest. This will set a precedent in the country should future shutdowns occur.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

Official Case Documents

Amicus Briefs and Other Legal Authorities


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