Lately, Zimbabwean political activists and rights defenders have been increasingly harnessing the power of the Internet, digital activism, social media, and Internet-enabled mobile phones to plan and coordinate game-changing collective democratic actions. Pastor Evan Mawarire’s April 2016 #ThisFlag video lament triggered a social media movement highlighting Zimbabwe’s continuing economic meltdown and government repression. Internet-enabled mobile phones, social media platforms and popular communication app such as WhatsApp were driving forces behind the youth-led Tajamuka/Sesijukile grassroots movement’s mid-2016 protests.
Unfortunately, according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), members of Zimbabwe’s growing army of Internet-savvy freedom fighters “can easily be identified” by the Robert Mugabe’s all-seeing surveillance state. Here’s the statement issued by Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulator soon after the #ThisFlag and Tajamuka/Sesijukile protests:
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) together with all the telecommunications service providers in Zimbabwe have noted with concern, the gross irresponsible use of social media and telecommunication services made through our infrastructure and communication platforms over the past few days.
We would like all Zimbabweans to know that we are completely against this behaviour and therefore advise that anyone generating, passing on or sharing such abusive and subversive materials which are tantamount to criminal behaviour, will be disconnected and the law will take its course.
All sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified.
We are therefore warning members of the public that from the date of this notice, any person caught in possession of, generating, sharing or passing on abusive, threatening, subversive or offensive telecommunication messages, including whatsapp or any other social media messages that may be deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest.
To understand the seriousness of the multiple threats in the statement, please consider the fact that POTRAZ is under Zimbabwe’s powerful Office of the President and Cabinet, which “exists to service the President in leading the State and Government and executing his constitutional responsibilities and duties, as articulated in Section 89 and 90 of the Constitution.”
POTRAZ’s threatening statement betrays the Mugabe regime’s continuing efforts to recapture the Zimbabwean cyberspace from Internet-savvy opposition activists and rights defenders. In the article, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” published by Journal of Democracy in 2015, Ron Deibert argues: “Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage.”
Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, 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.”
Did you notice how POTRAZ also spoke for all “telecommunications service providers in Zimbabwe”? The Mugabe regime 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.
Zimbabwe’s “private” telecom players are not entirely independent. Neither can they protect Zimbabweans’ privacy and digital rights. The 2007 Interception of Communications Act (ICA) co-opted telecom companies and internet service providers (ISPs) into the government’s surveillance project. The Act requires ISPs to “provide a telecommunications service which has the capacity to be intercepted.”
Finally, POTRAZ’s statement betrays the Mugabe regime’s determination to reign in Zimbabweans’ growing use of modern communications technologies. Zimbabweans now use mobile phones more frequently than computers to enjoy the benefits of the open Internet. The devices – and modern communication technologies such as WhatsApp – are connecting Zimbabweans in urban areas, the diaspora, and the countryside. They’re changing online human rights and political activism in Zimbabwe.
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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