Washington, DC — Background
Ms. Martha O’Donovan, a 25 year-old woman from Bridgewater, New Jersey, is a Fulbright Scholar and former New York University student currently facing criminal charges in Zimbabwe for allegedly insulting former President Robert Mugabe via Twitter. Ms. O’Donovan has been a resident in Harare for two years and works as a project manager at Magamba Network, a local satirical television show. Recently, the offices of Magamba Networks were raided by Zimbabwean police and their computers and electronics were confiscated. To date, there have been no formal charges against the network. Magamba Networks is funded by Transparency Responsiveness Accountability Citizen Engagement (TRACE), a civil society sub-granting mechanism funded by Western donors. Ms. O’Donovan is being represented locally by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR). Covington & Burling is providing pro bono counsel in Washington for Ms. O’Donovan and her family. The U.S. State Department and U.S. Embassy in Harare have been helpful and engaged with this matter since the beginning.
Ms. O’Donovan was detained on November 3rd and placed in Cikurubi Women’s Prison for “undermining authority of or insulting president” (Section 33 of Zimbabwe’s Criminal Law Act). She faces a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison. Ms. O’Donovan allegedly posted a tweet critical of former President Robert Mugabe on Oct. 11. The Zimbabwean government accuses her of publishing a tweet from the @matigary handle that said: “we are being led by a selfish and sick man,” along with a photo accusing the former President of using a catheter. Ms. O’Donovan denies the accusation and has stated that the allegations are “baseless and malicious.” Zimbabwean police purport to have traced the tweet in question to the IP address of Ms. O’Donovan’s computer. The @matigary handle was active while she was in custody and remains active today. It is unclear who runs the @matigary twitter account.
On November 10th, O’Donovan was released on $1,000 bail. Conditions for her release include reporting twice a week to the police and surrendering her passport. She has been advised to keep a low profile and not interact with or discuss her case with any potential witnesses. Her next remand hearing is scheduled to take place on January 4th. Human rights and media activists, including the Committee to Protect Journalists in Africa, have called for her release and are using the #FreeMartha hashtag to raise awareness about her case.
Since 2002, 150 cases have been tried under Section 33 of Zimbabwe’s Criminal Law Act. None have been successful. In November, similar charges were dropped against Zimbabwean activist, Pastor Evan Mawarire. On December 7, identical charges were dropped against Zimbabwean veterans’ leader, Victor Matemadanda. Ms. O’Donovan’s hearing was scheduled for the following day, December 8, and the expectation was that her charges would be dropped as well. Unfortunately, the court postponed her hearing to January 4.
We are in regular contact with Ms. O’Donovan and her local pro bono lawyers from the ZLHR. Our strategy is for her to keep a low profile and to avoid any actions that might give the Zimbabwean government a justification to avoid resolving this matter or returning her to prison. Our hope is that on January 4th, the charges will be dismissed and Ms. O’ Donovan will get her passport back and she will leave the country on her own accord. If, on the other hand, the state decides to proceed to trial at the end of January, it would indicate that the new Zimbabwean government has some larger motive for prosecuting Martha O’Donovan that is not immediately evident. We appreciate your attention to this matter which we believe is of broad interest from a rule of law, freedom of speeach and human rights perspective.