On Sunday, the Zimbabwe government-controlled Sunday Mail newspaper reported that Robert Mugabe’s proposed cybersecurity law, the so-called Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill, had recently been “re-engineered and renamed to give greater bite to enforcement.” The dictator’s newest terror weapon targets Internet-savvy Zimbabweans in the diaspora. It seeks to criminalize and cripple them ahead of the much-anticipated harmonized 2018 elections.
First introduced in August 2016 as the “Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill,” the proposed legislation declares war on 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. Once Mugabe’s Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill becomes law, it will join a growing list of draconian information control laws, which includes the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002), and the Interception of Communications Act (ICA), enacted in 2007.
“Diaspora cyber terrorists”
Since the proposed cybercrime’s introduction fifteen months ago, several officials from the government, military, and the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulator, have repeatedly issued strange warnings against “abusing” social media platforms.
Then there’s the spectre of “diaspora cyber terrorists”.
Back in 2016, Chris Mushohwe, Mugabe’s information minister, warned Zimbabweans against associating with “disgruntled elements in the Diaspora who think their Diaspora status gives them both immunity and impunity”. For Mushohwe, most critical Zimbabweans in the diaspora are “shady characters who behave traitorously against their country and people.” They’re working in cahoots with “intelligence services of hostile nations”. According to Mushohwe:
Government is aware of activists in the country collaborating with the diaspora cyber terrorists. They must be warned that the long arm of the law is encircling them.
The Zimbabwe military, which has propped Mugabe for the past 36 years, also believes his regime’s “diaspora terrorist” nonsense. In August 2016, the Herald, another government mouthpiece, reported that the army would “deal with malcontents and the country’s detractors using electronic gadgets to mobilize people to do unlawful activities.” Lieutenant-General Philip Valerio Sibanda, the commander of the Zimbabwe National Army, warned of “insurgent groups” resorting to cyber warfare.
The military’s reference to “electronic gadgets” confirms the Mugabe regime’s determination to criminalize Zimbabweans’ access to computer systems under the proposed cybersecurity law. A draft version of the original “Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill” reads:
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.
Targeted “crimes” under Mugabe’s proposed cybercrime law include “causing ‘substantial’ emotional stress, communicating falsehoods and degrading other people.” Part IV of the proposed legislation states:
Any person who unlawfully and intentionally, by means of a computer or information system, generates and sends any data or message to another person, or posts any material whatsoever on any electronic medium accessible by any person, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, threaten, bully or cause substantial emotional distress, or to degrade, humiliate, harass, threaten or demean the person of another or to encourage a person to harm himself, shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding Level 10 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 10 years or both such a fine and imprisonment.
Mugabe’s future cybercrime law potentially violates Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. Regarding freedom of expression and freedom of the media, Section 61 (1) of the constitution states:
Every person has the right to freedom of expression, which includes – (a) freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information; (b) freedom of artistic expression and scientific research and creativity; and (c) academic freedom.
The ruling Zanu PF-dominated legislature is likely to approve Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill before the end of the year. Once Mugabe has signed it into law, exiled Zimbabweans deemed to have committed a “cyber crime” will be extradited to Zimbabwe for prosecution. According to the Sunday Mail, these “diaspora cyber terrorists” and other “people who abuse social media face 10 years in jail”. The publication reported:
Foreign-based Zimbabweans who cause harm back home using social media or any other computer-based system will be extradited and prosecuted.
Basically, all Zimbabweans based in foreign countries are potential “diaspora cyber terrorists”. Mugabe’s proposed Cybercrime and Cybersecurity law is the “long arm of the law” supposedly “encircling” them. Frankly, I don’t see any sane western country agreeing to a Mugabe request to extradite Zimbabweans to face ten years in jail for causing the Mugabe regime “harm” or “substantial emotional distress” by using computers and other modern communications technologies to advance human rights and democracy. Still the dictator’s proposed draconian legislation sends a chill that’s likely to cripple Internet-savvy Zimbabweans, particularly human rights defenders and investigative journalists, ahead of the much-anticipated 2018 elections.
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. The initiative unmasks Zimbabwe’s key surveillance organizations, practices and information control laws. It brings 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, former political aide, 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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