A young white American woman is finding her life held in the balance by an African dictator.
Twenty-five-year-old New Jersey native Martha O’Donovan is accused of calling the 93-year-old president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, a “selfish & sick man” in a Twitter post that showed him with a catheter, and is facing 20 years in a Zimbabwean jail.
According to the Associated Press, the New York University grad has been charged with subversion and insulting the president. The subversion charge carries a 20-year prison term.
O’Donovan’s lawyer, Rose Hanzi, told the court that the subversion charge was illegal because police did not inform O’Donovan of it when she was taken from her home in Harare, the country’s capital, on Friday morning. She also denies that she made the tweet, the Washington Post reports. She is expected to ask the High Court of Zimbabwe for bail Monday morning.
Unlike in the tragic case of Otto Warmbier, a 21-year-old perhaps wrapped in his youth and arrogant Americanness, O’Donovan seems to have real skin in the Zimbabwean game.
She actually lives in the country, and AP reports that she works for the country’s media outlet Magamba TV, which promotes “satirical comedy.” Earlier this year, she presented a talk at a digital culture conference on “How Zimbabweans Rebel Online.”
Unfortunately, her activism against Mugabe, a former freedom fighter turned nightmare who has been in office 37 years, may have made her a target.
Last month, Mugabe appointed a “cybersecurity minister,” ostensibly to crack down on social media criticism of the government. Last year the southern-African nation saw its biggest anti-government protests in more than a decade, driven, of course, by social media, the communication currency of this generation.
Amnesty International said that the Zimbabwean government tracked down O’Donovan’s IP address from her tweet, though the Twitter account that posted the initial insult remains active even after she was detained.
“This arrest marks the start of a sinister new chapter in the Zimbabwean government’s clampdown on freedom of speech, and the new battleground is social media,” the Amnesty statement read in part.
Meanwhile, Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, is running for re-election next year.