Martha O’Donovan, a U.S. citizen who is a journalist from New Jersey, is facing two decades in a Zimbabwean jail after being accused of insulting Robert Mugabe on Twitter.
Now O’Donovan’s cause has become the subject of a viral Twitter hashtag: #FreeMartha. The 25-year-old was charged “with subversion in Zimbabwe for allegedly insulting the president on Twitter as a ‘sick man.'” She’s also charged with “undermining the authority of or insulting the president” and faces 20 years in prison, according to The Associated Press.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. O’Donovan Was working for Magama TV in Zimbabe & Described Herself as a ‘Media Activist’
Although a U.S. citizen, O’Donovan was making a career in journalism in Zimbabwe. Originally raised in New Jersey, she “had been working with local social media outlet Magamba TV, which describes itself as producing ‘satirical comedy sensations,'” the AP reported. According to The Washington Post, O’Donovan moved to Zimbabwe in 2016. “She got a job with Magamba TV, located in Harare,” the newspaper reported.
According to AP, she had positioned herself as a rebel. “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 re:publica digital culture conference on ‘How Zimbabweans Rebel Online,'” AP reported.
2. O’Donovan Was Accused of Being Behind an Anti-Mugabe Twitter Page That Has Tweeted Since She’s Been in Custody
O’Donovan supporters point out that the Twitter page she’s accused of using to criticize Mugabe has tweeted since she was detained. Zimbabwean authorities have not explained this contradiction. “The tweets come from the account of @matigary, who joined Twitter in February 2016. Zimbabwe authorities say they believe O’Donovan is the author of the tweet based on her IP address. But O’Donovan has denied this, and @matigary has continued to tweet since O’Donovan was jailed,” The Post reported.
The tweets in question labeled President Robert Mugabe a “very selfish and sick man,” reported The New York Post, and they included “a photo accusing him of using a catheter… but O’Donovan denies the accusation as ‘baseless and malicious.'” The Post reported that Mugabe, 93, may be trying to send a message as he’s grown increasingly concerned about social media campaigns challenging his government.
3. O’Donovan Was Described as Being ‘Tenacious’ & Having Many Supporters
Advocates for journalists and others who know O’Donovan have leapt to her defense. According to The New York Post, they describe her as savvy and smart and aware of the context in the political dimensions within which she was operating. A friend, Declan Galvin, told The New York Post, “She’s tenacious and knows that she has an excellent support network, which is helping to alleviate the stress.”
The Twitter support emerged under the hashtag #FreeMartha. Galvin added to The New York Post: “She is very cognizant about Zimbabwe and the context she lives and works,” he said, adding that O’Donovan was an Africa House fellow. “She’s not a dummy who gallivants across Africa who happened to get in trouble. She’s very clear-headed, knowledgeable and develops authentic relationships with people . . . She’s not a vacationer.”
NJ.com reports that Mugabe has become increasingly concerned about social media. “It 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,” reported NJ.com. It’s possible that the Mugabe regime was targeting O’Donovan to send a message.
4. O’Donovan Has Appeared in Court & Was Detained
The supposedly offending tweets have already landed O’Donovan in custody. According to NJ.com, she “made her first court appearance on Saturday as her lawyers disputed the charges that carry up to 20 years in prison.” Her lawyer argued that the subversion against her was illegal, reported NJ.com.
The New Jersey newspaper noted that O’Donovan kept a calm demeanor. “O’Donovan made no statement in court and showed no emotion as the request was dismissed. She waved to a small crowd of supporters as she was escorted into a prison truck,” the newspaper reported.
5. O’Donovan Graduated From High School in New Jersey
According to her Facebook page, Martha O’Donovan works at Magamba Network and Children’s Radio Foundation, was previously in the Fulbright Program and Jumpstart, studied at NYU, graduated from Bridgewater-Raritan High School, and lives in Harare, Zimbabwe. She is from Martinsville, New Jersey and lived in Ndola, Zambia, according to the page. She was also the manager of a local bar. Her last post on Facebook was about that bar and read, “Come for a sundowner, stay for the vibe! Swipe to check out our menu for Thursday. See you there. ?? Tamasha Dining & Lounge Bar.”
Her most visible Facebook posts had a somewhat political dimension. She wrote in 2016, “‘Boko Haram is in Nigeria but Mark Zuckerberg is visiting Sub-saharan Africa. The Thunder that will fire CNN…’ -Oluyomi Ojo.” She also shared information in support of people who had challenged the government in Zimbabwe:
The #ThisFlag movement by a pastor in Zimbabwe was fighting government corruption. “#ThisFlag update. In the face of intimidation abductions & arrests we still say enough is enough. Citizens of Zimbabwe you took a stand against corruption injustice & poverty and you #ShutDownZimbabwe. Let’s make sure they deliver on our demands. HATICHADA & HATICHATYA, ASISAFUNI njalo ASISESABI, FED UP & NOT AFRAID,” read the status on one post that O’Donovan shared.