Police officers detained over Whatsapp chat
12 January 2016, 08:07
Harare - Twenty police officers were taken in for questioning last week in cash-starved Zimbabwe for complaining over WhatsApp that they hadn't been paid, it was reported Monday.
The state-controlled Chronicle and Herald newspapers said three officers were still assisting police with investigations.
The officers, from Bindura in northern Zimbabwe, were detained on Wednesday after comments were allegedly posted to their WhatsApp chat group about the delay in payments.
The comments made were "in bad taste" and were meant to undermine President Robert Mugabe's government and possibly incite unrest among civil servants, the Chronicle said.
Mugabe's government struggled to pay its tens of thousands of civil servants last month, paying teachers late and only depositing salaries for nurses and doctors in early January.
For the first time, public sector workers did not get additional 13th month cheques or "bonuses", as has been the custom for many years.
The longtime president, who turns 92 next month, insisted last year that the bonuses would be paid, contradicting an announcement from his finance minister Patrick Chinamasa in April.
Chinamasa now appears to have accurately predicted the challenges the authorities would face in raising the cash.
Many private companies in Zimbabwe did not pay bonuses in 2015.
Treasury uses most of the revenue it collects to pay civil servants. But revenues have steadily shrunk on the back of company closures and the lack of desperately-needed foreign direct investment.
Critics and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change say a black economic empowerment law -- known in Zimbabwe as the Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Act -- scares away investors in the wake of Mugabe's land reforms, which saw up to 4,000 white farmers forced to leave farms.
Chinamasa tried to water down the regulations late in December, but his efforts were spectacularly nullified a few days later by Mugabe's nephew, Indigenisation Minister Patrick Zhuwao, who instead announced a toughening up of the laws.
The police officers appear to have been shipped by other members of the Whatsapp chat group, as often happens in politically-divided Zimbabwe.
The three who are "still assisting with investigations" are being seen as the ringleaders of the group and could be charged under Zimbabwe's Police Act, the newspapers said.
There is a suggestion they could lose their jobs.
"The matter [is] being handled by CID Law and Order in Bindura and the three officers are still assisting with investigations," the Chronicle said.
Analyst Jeffrey Smith of the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in Washington told News24 the detentions were evidence of "an increasingly paranoid regime."
"There is deepening dissatisfaction in the country, and authorities are going to unsettling lengths to silence rightful criticism, including the jailing of both state and independent journalists," he said in an interview.
"This is a self-induced tailspin," Smith added.
Former education minister David Coltart, who is a member of the opposition, tweeted that the detentions were "signs of panic".
With Zimbabweans wondering on social media how the government will pay civil servants in the coming months, the government is desperately trying to find ways of raising revenue. Fines for road infractions have been increased five-fold, while travellers have had the amount of goods they're allowed to bring into Zimbabwe without paying duty cut by a third.
Informal sector workers - small-scale businesspeople, car repairers, used clothes merchants, food sellers and many others - are unhappy with plans to extract taxes from them.
The sector is estimated to employ at least 80 percent of the southern African country's workers.
State-run media insist that 2016 will be a good year, with the Sunday Mail reporting in its latest edition that it would be a "year of economic boom".
Government officials still mostly attribute Zimbabwe's problems to sanctions they say were illegally imposed on Zimbabwe in the wake of the land reform programme.