In the past two years, the Robert Mugabe regime has deepened and expanded Zimbabwe’s state surveillance capacity. It has actively sought to shape the Zimbabwean cyberspace to its own strategic advantage. Earlier this month, the regime further extended its authoritarian agenda and ability to conduct repressive activities into cyberspace; it created a brand new cybersecurity ministry. Mugabe’s new Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation ministry will be headed by former finance minister Patrick Chinamasa.
George Charamba, Mugabe’s spokesperson, recently clarified the Cybersecurity Ministry’s true nature and place in Mugabe’s expanding surveillance state. He said the dictator sees “an emerging threat to the State of Zimbabwe, a threat that is founded on abuse and unlawful conduct on the cyber space.” Quoting Mugabe, Charamba said the new ministry is “like a trap used to catch rats”. In this YouTube video, Charamba confirmed that the new cybersecurity ministry “drew experiences” from Russsia and China, countries that “have done exceedingly well in terms of ensuring some kind of order and lawfulness” in cyber space.
Quoting Charamba, the government-controlled Herald newspaper called the new ministry “a protective portfolio aimed at protecting the nation from cyber threats posed by the abuse of social media”. The publication also stated that the ministry is “apparently geared to deal with the growing abuse of cyber space”. If there has even been a major direct cyber security threat to Zimbabwe since the advent of the Internet and modern communications technologies such as WhatsApp, please let me know.
Mugabe’s Digital Authoritarianism
Mugabe’s Cybersecurity Ministry is more concerned with curtailing Zimbabweans’ human and digital rights than protecting Zimbabwe’s infrastructure from real cyber criminals. Importantly, it brings the tyrant a step closer to achieving what civil libertarians call “digital authoritarianism”.
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, in Toronto, Canada, 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 Spying entitities
Several countries have agencies or departments dedicated to cybersecurity. Zimbabwe is probably the first country in the world to create an entire anti-cyber crime ministry.
Mugabe’s Cybersecurity Ministry joins more than a half dozen security entities and support organizations with vast spying powers. In the name of national security, these entities are empowered to spy on Zimbabweans: Central Intelligence Organization (CIO), Mugabe’s dreaded secret “secret police”; Joint Operations Command (JOC), which consists of Mugabe and the chiefs of the army, air force, intelligence services, police, and prisons; Zimbabwe National Army; Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP); Police Internal Security Intelligence (PISI) arm of the ZRP; and even the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), Zimbabwe’s telecommunications regulator, which is also under the President’s Office.
According to Freedom House’s 2016 Freedom on the Net report, Zimbabwe’s Interception of Communications Act (ICA) of 2007 “established a Monitoring of Interception of Communications Center that has the power to oversee traffic in all telecommunications services and to intercept phone calls, emails, and faxes under the pretext of national security”.
Meanwhile, Mugabe’s future cybersecurity law, the so-called the Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill, proposes the creation of a Computer Crime and Cybercrime Management Centre dedicated to the interception of Zimbabweans’ communications, and seizure of computers and mobile communications devices.
Information control laws
Zimbabwe’s Cybersecurity Ministry ministry will operate in a state surveillance environment comprising a growing list of draconian information control laws. These include the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) (2002), and the ICA. The ICA boosted the surveillance powers of the military, CIO and ZRP. It even granted ministries and agencies such as the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority new surveillance powers. It also co-opted Zimbabwe’s telecom companies and Internet service providers (ISPs) into the government’s surveillance project. Under the ICA, ISPs must “provide a telecommunications service which has the capacity to be intercepted.”
Meanwhile, the ruling Zanu PF-dominated legislature is likely to rubber-stamp the Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill before the end of the year. Formerly titled “Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill,” the proposed legislation declares war on open the Internet, democracy, human rights, and the free flow of information. It violates Zimbabweans’ privacy rights, which are protected by Section 57 of Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution.
The threats to Zimbabweans’ privacy and digital rights aside, Mugabe’s new Cybersecurity Ministry is also an unnecessary burden on Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped economy. It could easily be a department of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Information, Technology and Courier Services (ICT), and Ministry of Media, Information & Broadcasting Services. The home affairs ministry is responsible for internal security. It’s in charge of the Zimbabwe Republic Police, immigration, censorship board, and the registrar’s office.
The Ministry of ICT has already been at the forefront of Mugabe’s ongoing attempts to control the cyberspace. It sponsored the Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill. It recently wrapped up the drafting of Zimbabwe’s new Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) policy. As reported by the Zimbabwe Independent earlier this year:
The Ministry of ICT this year tightened its grip on cyberspace through various legislation while facilitating spying on its citizens. The drafting of Zimbabwe’s new ICT Policy was concluded, wrapping up a process that had dragged for over four years and the policy was adopted by cabinet. The policy proposed amongst other things establishment of a quasi-government entity to monitor internet traffic. It states that all internet gateways and infrastructure will be controlled by a single company, while a National Data Centre “to support both public and high security services and information” will be set up.
The data centre will also allow government “to centralise information storage, management and protection”. The policy, alongside the Data Protection Bill, Computer and Cybercrime Bill, which will allow government to install a remote forensic tool (spying tool) onto citizens’ communication devices such as phones, will enable government to effectively spy on citizens.
In fact, Mugabe’s new Cubersecurity Ministry could easily be a branch of the powerful National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), the body created in 2014 to oversee criminal proceedings on the state’s behalf. Plucked out of the Attorney-General’s office in 2014 as per the country’s 2013 constitution, the NPA is heavily militarized.
“Military officials constitute 75% of the staff complement at the NPA,” the Zimbabwe Independent reported earlier this year.
Mugabe’s new Prosecutor General, Ray Hamilton Goba, recently confirmed that soldiers and spies do manage the state’s lawyers as “professional administrators”.
“Yes, we have military professionals on secondment here at head office running the administration of the NPA,” the Herald newspaper reported in September.
Mugabe’s all-seeing eye
As if a dedicated Cybersecurity Ministry and draconian information control laws weren’t enough, a former top spy will now presides over Zimbabwe’s justice system. In a recent cabinet reshuffle, Mugabe promoted Major-General (Retired) Happyton Bonyongwe, a former head of the the CIO, as the new Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs.
Before being expelled from the ruling Zanu PF party in 2014, Mugabe’s former Security Minister, Didymus Mutasa, claimed that the government “sees everything,” including what happens in Zimbabweans’ bedrooms. Mutasa, who once presided over the CIO, reportedly said:
No one can hide from us in this country.
In 2016, POTRAZ confirmed that Zimbabwe’s growing army of Internet-savvy freedom fighters “can easily be identified” by Mugabe’s all-seeing surveillance state. According to the agency, POTRAZ is under Zimbabwe’s powerful Office of President and Cabinet:
All sim cards in Zimbabwe are registered in the name of the user. Perpetrators can easily be identified.
It’s reasonable to assume that the Mugabe regime will expand its digital authoritarianism even further in the next few months. It will certainly increase efforts to limit the democratic potential of the Internet and social media during 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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