New Jersey Woman Arrested in Zimbabwe Over Tweet

by Colleen Dabrowski

U.S. citizen and New Jersey native Martha O’Donovan was arrested in her home in Harare, Zimbabwe, on the charge of subversion. Prosecutors cite a tweet that O’Donovan shared which featured an image insinuating the 93-year-old President Mugabe of Zimbabwe used a catheter, calling him a “selfish and sick man.” The prosecutors are escalating the accusations against O’Donovan, now claiming she was planning to overthrow the government. If the charges stick, O’Donovan could face up to 20 years in prison.

O’Donovan is a New York University graduate from Bridgewater, New Jersey. In Zimbabwe, she was working as the manager of Magamba TV, a satirical news organization, and is a self-described “media activist” according to NJ.com. This past year, O’Donovan gave a talk at a digital culture conference called “How Zimbabweans Rebel Online.”

O’Donovan’s lawyer, Rose Hanzi, argued in court that the arrest was illegal and invalid. Allegedly, the arresting officers did not inform O’Donovan of her crimes when she was taken from her home in the capital city on November 3. The court rejected the argument and placed O’Donovan in a high-security prison over the weekend, according to NJ.com. On November 10, one week after her arrest, O’Donovan was released on $1000 bail due to an “absence of facts” in the case against her, according to the New York Times.

Haley Watson (‘20) said, “This case overall says a lot about the governmental clash between online censorship and freedom of speech. In this scenario, I think it’s interesting to compare the cultural landscape of Zimbabwe regarding social media to the U.S. O’Donovan’s tweet is not all that different from the Twitter backlash against our own president.” Time Alabbas (‘21) added, “Article 10 and Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights state that an individual has the right to a fair trial and the right to opinion and information. These are two articles that have been violated in Zimbabwe, as of late. These are human rights violations that need to be rectified, and I call for the Zimbabwean government to adjust their stances and policies to fix these issues in order to actually promote ‘democratic’ ideals that they have promoted in the past.”  

Amnesty International issued the statement:  “We are calling on the Zimbabwean authorities to stop punishing people simply for exercising their freedom of expression. Social media users must not end up in jail simply for sharing their opinions.” O’Donovan’s arrest is predicted to be one of many; in a visit to South Africa last month, President Mugabe spoke about cracking down on social media. Mugabe blamed it for the spread of lies and further destruction of the Zimbabwean economy and appointed a new government official in charge of cybersecurity, according to NPR.

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