Southern African leaders have resolved to tighten restrictions on social media usage, especially during elections, ostensibly to curb the spread of fake news.
According to a communique released at the of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) annual summit held virtually on Monday, the bloc resolved to "take pre-emptive measures against external interference, impact of fake news and abuse of social media particularly in electoral processes."
The resolution was described as 'chilling' and 'ominous' by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa), which expressed fears it will be used by authoritarian regimes to clampdown on freedom of expression.
"While there is need to curb the spread of fake news, the resolution is worrying as a number of countries in the southern African region have such laws as a pretext to clampdown on freedom of expression and the media," Misa Zimbabwe said.
"A number of people have also been arrested and charged in countries such as Zimbabwe and Botswana on allegations of either abusing social media or spreading fake news. In this regard, the resolution by the Sadc leaders is chilling and ominous as it could spell the onset of tighter restrictions on freedom of the media and freedom of expression."
Zimbabwe last month arrested prominent investigative journalist Hopewell Chin’ono on allegations that he was plotting to remove President Emmerson Mnangagwa from power by posting messages on Twitter.
The journalist had used his Twitter handle to expose corruption in the procurement of Covid-19 personal protective equipment worth $60 million.
One of President Mnangagwa’s sons was allegedly implicated in the scandal, which forced the Zimbabwean ruler to fire his Health minister.
Outgoing SADC chairperson John Magufuli's Tanzania has also come under the spotlight over a crackdown against freedom of expression and that of the media.
The summit ignored calls for intervention in the Zimbabwe crisis where a social media campaign dubbed #ZimbabweanLivesMatter has drawn the world's attention to the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.
International organisations such as the African Union and the United Nations have in recent days condemned President Mnangagwa's clampdown against dissent in the aftermath of the July 31 protests.