Pastor Evan Mawarire, a Zimbabwean activist, leaves the magistrate’s court in Harare after a magistrate ordered his release on Sept. 26, in Harare. (Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images)

In a highly anticipated reshuffling of cabinet appointments last week, Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, created a new ministry of “Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation,” to be led by former finance minister Patrick Chinamasa. The government claims the ministry was created because of growing abuse of social media, including cyberbullying.

But observers claim that the real reason is to clamp down on citizens who’ve been using social media to criticize the government as the country’s economic instability grows — and see the move as a threat to freedom of expression. Media watchdog MISA-Zimbabwe warned that the new ministry will have a chilling effect, increasing self-censorship by the media and by citizens on social media.

Presidential spokesman George Charamba defended the new ministry, arguing that the president “is dealing with an emerging threat to the state of Zimbabwe … that is founded on abuse and unlawful conduct in cyberspace.” Charamba claims abuse of social media has created a sense of panic in Zimbabwe and destabilized the economy.

Here’s what you need to know about how the ministry emerged and what citizens think about government monitoring of communications.

Cash and commodity shortages have made social media and its users a target of Zimbabwe’s government.

In late September, Zimbabweans responded to a growing cash crisis by stockpiling basic commodities. Citizens circulated pictures of empty store shelves and price hikes of more than 300 percent on most basic commodities. The experience reminded many Zimbabweans of the 2008-2009 economic crisis when hyperinflation hit 89.7 sextillion percent.

The Zimbabwean government arrested pastor Evan Mawarire on charges of subversion a day after he held a Sept. 23 town hall meeting live on Facebook (simulcast on Instagram) about the cash and basic commodities shortages. By using social media to ask questions about Zimbabwe’s governance, Mawarire went from a little-known clergyman to someone with an international following. Most famous was his #ThisFlag speech on Facebook in April 2016, calling Zimbabweans to action.

Mugabe’s government dismissed criticism about poor governance and blamed social media for exacerbating the country’s economic problems. In late September, Mugabe accused social media users of causing panic and creating shortages.

Zimbabwe’s move to control social media began before the September shortages.

The new cybersecurity ministry is consistent with a controversial computer and cyber crime bill parliament expected to pass later this year. Zimbabwe’s Minister of Information and Technology Supa Mandiwanzira originally introduced the bill in May 2017.

As early as 2016, Mandiwanzira told reporters that “Internet supervision” was “imminent,” mentioning an incident when a model in Harare was falsely accused of infecting a child with HIV. Millions of Zimbabweans insulted and attacked the model, Tafadzwa Mushunje, on social media, at times including threats against her life. The government claims its new ministry will help reduce such cyberbullying attacks.

Controlling social media, however, would also give government greater leverage over those who oppose the ruling party. Opposition figures and street protests have been gaining energy in the face of growing economic instability. Disgruntled citizens have been using SMS messaging and social media platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter to collectively organize.

Zimbabweans are well connected online.

According to Afrobarometer data collected in 2017, most Zimbabweans (84 percent) own a mobile phone; more than a third (36 percent) use the Internet on their phones; and 71 percent reported that they use their phones every day.

That includes accessing social media platforms like WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter. One report estimates that 41 percent of the nation’s 16 million citizens use the Internet. As of June 2017, Zimbabwe had 850,000 users on Facebook, a 5.2 percent penetration rate. TechZim estimates that at least 5.2 million Zimbabweans use the encrypted text messaging service WhatsApp.

Politics are a popular topic on social media. The #ThisFlag movement took hold in 2016, leading to a successful national stay-away protest on July 6, 2016. Before that, an online whistleblower emerged during the run-up to Zimbabwe’s 2013 elections. Under the pseudonym Baba Jukwa, he used his platform — a Facebook following numbering over 300,000 — to expose scandals in the ruling party.

Zimbabweans also seek entertainment online, where programming has so far evaded state oversight. BustopTV, a popular satirical show run by two young women, has more than 17,000 subscribers on YouTube and 100,000 on Facebook; its videos have had more than 9 million views. Its most popular episode, “Solidarity March,” mocked 2017 rallies supporting first lady Grace Mugabe, receiving more than 60,000 views on Facebook and circulating widely on WhatsApp.

Most Zimbabweans want government out of private communications, even when security is at stake.

We haven’t polled citizens since the new ministry was created. But we can learn their opinions about government control over social media from a recent Afrobarometer survey. Led by the Mass Public Opinion Institute in Zimbabwe, Afrobarometer interviewed a nationally representative sample of 1,200 adult Zimbabweans in January and February.

Afrobarometer asked Zimbabweans to evaluate the trade-off between freedom and security. More specifically, respondents were asked to agree with one of two statements: (1) Government should be able to monitor private communications, for example on mobile phones, to make sure that people are not plotting violence; or (2) People should have the right to communicate in private without a government agency reading or listening to what they are saying.

Nearly 7 in 10 Zimbabweans surveyed agreed with the second statement — that people have a right to communicate privately without government listening in. Opposition to government monitoring of private communication was even higher among more educated and younger Zimbabweans, and particularly high (86 percent) among Zimbabweans who identified with the leading opposition party.

This post is part of our Fall Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the Pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa. Read more in the series.

Chipo Dendere is a postdoctoral fellow at Amherst College, where she teaches political science. She studies the relationship between migration and democratization; factors that influence political transitions; and vote choice, identity, public opinion, and political behavior. Follow her on Twitter at @drDendere.