Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe’s Emerging Digital Authoritarianism
Until recently, the Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) was the spying entity Zimbabweans mostly worried about. I crossed paths with Robert Mugabe’s secret “secret police” during my time as an activist, political aide and international development worker in Zimbabwe throughout the 1990s. Then the CIO was notorious for all kinds of surveillance activities, including: targeting and harassing activists, infiltrating opposition parties, smearing opposition figures, and splitting opposition parties.
Today, the CIO is probably the nucleus of a vast surveillance apparatus comprising: the Office of the President and Cabinet; the Joint Operations Command (JOC), which consists of President Mugabe and the chiefs of the army, air force, intelligence services, police, and prisons; the Ministry of State Security; military intelligence; and the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP). Even the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), the country’s telecoms regulator, which is also under the President’s Office, is part of Mugabe’s surveillance apparatus.
Until recently, a few draconian laws, such as the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000 and the Interception of Communications Act (ICA), enacted in 2007, provided Mugabe’s surveillance apparatus with legislative cover.
In the past two years, the Zimbabwean government has further deepened and expanded its surveillance capacity. It has extend its authoritarian agenda and activities into cyberspace. It now actively seeks to shape the cyberspace to its own strategic advantage. The Mugabe regime has fully embraced what security researchers and civil libertarians call “digital authoritarianism”.
In the article “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” published by Journal of Democracy in 2015, Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, argues: “Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage.” Deibert further argues: “Moreover, authoritarians have developed an arsenal that extends from technical measures, laws, policies, and regulations, to more covert and offensive techniques, such as targeted malware attacks and campaigns to coopt social media.”
Mugabe’s burgeoning digital authoritarianism is partly a response to Zimbabweans’ growing use of the Internet, social media and modern communication technologies. Zimbabweans now use mobile phones more frequently than computers to enjoy the benefits of the open Internet. Cellphones are also connecting Zimbabweans in urban areas, the diaspora, and the countryside. Zimbabwean activists, rights defenders, journalists and political strategists are increasingly harnessing the power of the Internet and digital activism to plan and coordinate collective actions. Pastor Evan Mawarire’s April 2016 #ThisFlag video lament triggered a social media movement against Zimbabwe’s continuing economic meltdown and government repression. The ongoing youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile movement’s grassroots protests, which started in 2016 demanding Mugabe’s resignation, are social media driven.
The Mugabe regime responded to Tajamuka/Sesijukile’s #ShutDownZim protests protests by blocking access to the popular app, WhatsApp, for several hours. Importantly, the regime used the protests also as an opportunity to further boost its surveillance capabilities. In August 2016, the government added the so-called Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill to its suite of existing information control legislation. Zimbabwe’s “Snoopers’ Charter” reminds me of the UK’s 2016 Investigatory Powers Act (pdf), recently branded the “most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy” by Jim Killock, the executive director of the Open Rights Group, in a recent Newsweek opinion article.
Zimbabwe’s proposed Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill threatens the open Internet, democracy, human rights, free flow of information, and Zimbabweans’ privacy rights, which are protected by Section 57 of the country’s 2013 constitution. It’s not at all concerned with protecting civil liberties. The Bill also proposes the creation of a Computer Crime and Cybercrime Management Centre dedicated to the interception of Zimbabweans’ communications and seizure of cellphones and computers.
The Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill was partly marketed as an anti-hacking law for the digital age. A draft version of the bill confirms the regime’s determination to criminalize on and offline activism, and even accessing computer systems:
A Bill for An Act to criminalize offences against computers and network related crime; to consolidate the criminal law on computer crime and network crime; to provide for investigation and collection of evidence for computer and network related crime; to provide for the admission of electronic evidence for such offences, and to provide for matters connected with or incidental to the foregoing.
I’m reminded of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) in the U.S., which was used to unfairly prosecute programmer and Internet activist Aaron Swartz until he took his own life in January 2013.
In the past several months, government, military, and POTRAZ officials supporting Zimbabwe’s “Snooper’s Charter” have repeatedly issued warnings against “abusing” social media platforms and colluding with “diaspora cyber terrorists”. These aren’t idle warnings. The Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill proposes as many as 5 years in prison for “cybercrime”. Exiled Zimbabweans deemed to have committed “cybercrime” would be extradited to Zimbabwe for prosecution.
The Mugabe regime’s emerging digital authoritarianism expands the government’s existing ability to effectively intercept communications and stifle freedoms of expression, assembly and expression. The Post and Telecommunications Act already allows government interception of communications. The ICA of 2007 boosted the surveillance powers of the military, CIO and ZRP. Where there are “reasonable grounds for the minister to think that an offence has been committed or that there is a threat to safety or national security of the country,” the ICA authorizes the Minister of Transport, Communication and Infrastructure to issue surveillance warrants to state security agencies. The ICA even granted agencies such as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority new surveillance powers.
The ICA established a Monitoring of Interception of Communications Center, the “sole facility through which authorised interceptions shall be effected.” In the name of national security, the centre has the power to intercept all telecommunications, including emails and phone calls.
The ICA coopted Zimbabweans telecom companies and internet service providers (ISPs) into the government’s surveillance project. It requires ISPs to boost the government’s surveillance capacity. According to Section 9 of the ICA, telecoms and ISPs must provide the government with surveillance “assistance” as follows:
A service provider must ensure that:
(a) its postal or telecommunications systems are technically capable of supporting lawful interceptions at all times in accordance with section 12;
(b) it installs hardware and software facilities and devices to enable interception of communications at all times or when so required, as the case may be;
(c) its services are capable of rendering real time and full time monitoring facilities for the interception of communications;
(d) all call-related information is provided in real-time or as soon as possible upon call termination;
(e) it provides one or more interfaces from which the intercepted communication shall be transmitted to the monitoring centre;
(f) intercepted communications are transmitted to the monitoring centre via fixed or switched connections, as may be specified by the agency;
(g) it provides access to all interception subjects operating temporarily or permanently within their communications systems, and, where the interception subject may be using features to divert calls to other service providers or terminal equipment, access to such other providers or equipment.
The ICA requires telecom companies and ISPs to provide “the capacity to implement a number of simultaneous interceptions” by multiple state agents while safeguarding the identities of the spies. Furthermore, the telecoms and ISPs must ensure that “all interceptions are implemented in such a manner that neither the interception target nor any other unauthorised person is aware of any changes made to fulfil the warrant.”
Under ICA, telecom companies and ISPs who fail to advance the Mugabe regime’s surveillance agenda “shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level twelve or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.”
Meanwhile, the Mugabe government is heavily invested in Zimbabwe’s information and communications technology (ICT) market. It owns NetOne, which, according to POTRAZ’s 2016 third quarter report, controls 36.4% of the share of mobile subscribers. Two of Zimbabwe’s five international Internet gateways, the fixed network, TelOne, and mobile network, NetOne, are state-owned. The other two, Econet and Africom, are privately owned. The fifth, TeleCel, is partially government owned. The government also owns Zarnet, one of Zimbabwe’s dozen licensed ISPs. The proposed National Policy for Information and Communications Technology (ICT), first introduced in 2015, seeks to centralize control over Zimbabwe’s internet and grant the government the power to block websites. It will likely breathe life into Mugabe’s dream of a Chinese-style “Great Firewall” of Zimbabwe.
The Internet, social media and modern communications technologies are likely to improve political participation during Zimbabwe’s landmark 2018 elections, and even facilitate change. It’s reasonable to assume that the Mugabe regime will expand its digital authoritarianism and increase its efforts to limit the democratic potential of the Internet and social media during the elections. It’s reasonable to assume that members of the Zanu PF youth league will engage in online harassment of opponents. They will most certainly engage in pro-government manipulation of discussions on online forums.
The Internet, social media and modern communications technologies will play an important role in strengthening Zimbabwean democracy after the dictatorship’s fall. And yet, with the 2018 election only few months away, no opposition party has offered any substantial guarantees that they will revisit the country’s surveillance agencies and draconian information control laws. Zimbabweans are still waiting for the guarantee that the long-awaited post Mugabe government will introduce new Internet policies grounded in transparency, constitutionalism and human rights.
In fact, I doubt that Mugabe’s dangerous surveillance agencies and information control laws will follow him to his grave, where they belong. African governments tend to retain repressive laws, attitudes and practices inherited from fallen repressive regimes. Zimbabwe’s CIO and JOC are relics of racist Rhodesia. Importantly, according to Freedom House’s 2015 Freedom on the Net report (pdf), “social networking pages and chat groups were also targeted for removal by opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who in May 2015 ordered all WhatsApp and Facebook groups administered by any members of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) opposition party to shut down or face suspension.” The MDC-T party later suspended five officials for “allegedly abusing social media platforms to attack the party’s top leadership and fanning factionalism.”
Zimbabwe urgently needs a grassroots movement and network of Internet freedom fighters dedicated to defending privacy and digital rights during Zimbabwe’s 2018 transition season and after Mugabe’s departure.
This article is part of The Zimbabwean Progressive‘s “Zimbabwe Surveillance Self-Defense” initiative, whose main pre-occupation is in-depth, comparative and evidence-based independent journalism on Mugabe’s ever-evolving surveillance and digital authoritarianism. In the coming months, the initiative will unmask Zimbabwe’s key surveillance organizations, practices and information control laws. It will bring safe communication technologies, strategies and practices to the doorsteps of Zimbabwean activists, rights defenders, journalists/bloggers, and ordinary Zimbabweans who wish to defend themselves and their families, friends and communities against government surveillance.
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, activist, photographer, digital rights enthusiast, and former international development administrator. He’s the founder and editor of these blogs: The Canadian Progressive, Zimbabwean Progressive, and Charity Files. Follow him on Twitter: @Obiemad
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