HARARE, Zimbabwe — An American woman charged with subversion in Zimbabwe for allegedly insulting the president will remain in police custody this weekend after appearing in court for the first time.
Martha O’Donovan is accused of calling 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe a “sick man” in a Twitter post that included a photo illustration of Mugabe with a catheter. She denies the allegations as “baseless and malicious.”
The court on Saturday dismissed a request by O’Donovan’s lawyers to strike down the subversion charge, arguing that police didn’t inform her of it when she was arrested Friday morning.
Lawyer Rose Hanzi says they will approach the High Court for bail on Monday. O’Donovan also is charged with undermining or insulting the authority of the president. The charge of subversion carries up to 20 years in prison.
Hers was the first arrest since Mugabe last month appointed a cybersecurity minister, a move criticized by activists as targeting social media. Zimbabwe was shaken last year by the biggest anti-government protests in a decade. Frustration is growing in the once-prosperous southern African nation as the economy collapses and the president, in power since 1980, is already running for next year’s elections.
O’Donovan had been working with local social media outlet Magamba TV, which describes itself as producing “satirical comedy sensations.”
O’Donovan, a graduate of New York University, has called herself a manager for Magamba TV and a “media activist.” Earlier this year, she presented a talk at a digital culture conference on “How Zimbabweans Rebel Online.”
O’Donovan’s family could not immediately be reached for comment. The State Department said that “we are aware of reports that a U.S. citizen was detained in Zimbabwe. We stand ready to provide appropriate consular assistance for U.S. citizens. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
The group representing O’Donovan, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, says it has represented nearly 200 people charged for allegedly insulting Mugabe, the world’s oldest head of state, 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,” said Amnesty International’s deputy regional director, Muleya Mwananyanda. The statement said Zimbabwe authorities tracked tweets to O’Donovan’s IP address.