In 2016, Martha O’Donovan, then a 25-year-old New York University graduate, moved to Zimbabwe. She got a job with Magamba TV as a manager and "media activist" for the satirical comedy station.
Now she’s in jail.
At issue: a tweet attacking Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe that read, "We are being led by a selfish & sick man."
The tweet came from the account of matigary, with a profile photo of a black man in a suit who joined Twitter in February 2016. Zimbabwe authorities say they believe O’Donovan is the author of the tweet based on her IP address. O’Donovan, who is white, has denied this, and matigary has continued to tweet since O’Donovan was jailed.
She has been charged with subversion and attempting to overthrow the Mugabe government. That charge carries a sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
In a statement to police, O’Donovan, who grew up in New Jersey, called the allegations "baseless and malicious." Her lawyer, Rose Hanzi, has argued that the charge is illegal because the police did not inform O’Donovan of it when she was taken Friday morning from her home in the capital, Harare. Her bail hearing is set for Nov. 15.
The State Department says it is aware of O’Donovan’s situation but declined further comment.
O’Donovan’s arrest comes a month after Mugabe appointed Patrick Chinamasa as minister of a new cybersecurity ministry targeting crime on social media and other websites. When Chinamasa was appointed, activists on social media said, they worried he would target them.
"Most Zimbabweans do vent on social media about the state of the country, so if they arrest her for this, they might as well arrest all Zimbabweans on social media," activist Munya Bloggo told BuzzFeed News. "I don’t think anyone is exempt."
Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights say at least 200 people have been charged for alleged insults against Mugabe in recent years.
"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," Muleya Mwananyanda, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, told the Associated Press.
Tongia Makawa, the station’s co-founder and project manager, told BuzzFeed News that he and his colleagues are in shock. "In all honesty, I think the only thing that’s separates her from the rest of the team is the fact that she’s a foreign national," he said.