By MacDonald Dzirutwe
HARARE, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Zimbabwe’s government said on Wednesday it would crack down on social media users it accused of spreading false rumours of shortages and causing panic buying of fuel and other goods.
Most service stations in Harare have been without fuel since Monday amid a mounting economic crisis, and long queues have formed at the few outlets that are still selling it.
Ministers put the blame on the country’s small but vibrant social media scene and said the cabinet had decided to take unspecified measures.
“The trigger to the artificial shortages that was created was most unexpected. In fact, it was like a bombshell because there were no shortages in the market,” Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa said.
People were going online, he said, trying to cause alarm and despondency in a country still haunted by the shortages and hyperinflation days of 2008.
“The cause basically was social media. Of course it means its a security issue, it is also a political agenda, a regime change agenda. We are going to look at what exactly happened with a view to take corrective measures in the security arena.”
Veteran President Robert Mugabe has faced a series of street protests since last year, many of them organised online. Talk of “corrective measures” will raise fears of a wider crackdown before elections next year.
Zimbabwe is grappling with cash shortages that have worsened in the last three months, with some banks unable to provide money at all to customers.
A shortage of U.S. dollars has left businesses struggling to import goods and the raw materials to make products locally.
Prices of imported cooking oil and dairy products have risen. Businesses say they are buying foreign currency on the black market at a premium, raising fears of a return to hyperinflation.
Chinamasa said the country’s Attorney General was drafting measures that would allow the police to arrest illegal foreign currency traders and confiscate the currency.
“We are going further. Where we establish that the transactions were done through bank accounts, the regulations will empower the freezing of those accounts to the extent of the money that is being traded illegally,” Chinamasa said. (Reporting by MacDonald Dzirutwe; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Heavens)