For more than a year now, I’ve highlighted the threat to privacy and Internet-related rights posed by the Zimbabwe government’s burgeoning digital authoritarianism. Rightly so.
In its final year in power, Robert Mugabe’s authoritarian ZANU PF government actively sought to shape Zimbabwe’s cyberspace to its strategic advantage. For example, it responded to Zimbabwean activists’ increasing use of technologies such as WhatsApp by introducing the so-called Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill. First introduced in August 2016 as the “Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill,” the draconian bill declared war on the open Internet, democracy, human rights, free flow of information, and privacy rights protected by Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution. A military coup forced Mugabe to resign last November.
A paper published by the European Centre for Political Economy in 2011, entitled, “Digital Authoritarianism: Human Rights, Geopolitics and Commerce“, states:
Governments in authoritarian regimes have been remarkably successful at adapting to the perceived dangers posed to their political authority by the Internet.
Ron Deibert, the director of the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, explained the growing menace of digital authoritarianism in the article, “Authoritarianism Goes Global: Cyberspace Under Siege,” published by Journal of Democracy in 2015. According to the article:
Far from being made obsolete by the Internet, authoritarian regimes are now actively shaping cyberspace to their own strategic advantage… 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.
The fallen Zimbabwean dictator’s digital authoritarianism is alive and well. Mugabe’s successor, Emmerson Mnangagwa, embraced the revamped Cybercrime and Cybersecurity Bill. It’s now been renamed Cybersecurity and Cybercrimes Bill. Not only that. Zimbabwe’s future cybersecurity law will be more draconian than even Mugabe envisaged.
You’ll recall Supa Mandiwanzira as the Mugabe-era minister of information, communication, technology, and cybersecurity who crafted the original cybersecurity bill. He’s Mnangagwa’s “new” Minister of Information Communication Technology and Cyber Security. Earlier this year, Mandiwanzira, a former journalist, told a parliamentary committee that Zimbabwe’s proposed cybersecurity bill will now incorporate two more draconian Mugabe-era draft laws, the Data Protection Bill, and the Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commerce Bill. The merger will create one monstrous omnibus bill that will inflict a terrible blow on Zimbabweans’ constitutionally-protected rights.
MISA Zimbabwe, an organization dedicated to promoting freedom of expression and access to information in Zimbabwe, believes the omnibus cybersecurity bill is a terrible idea.
“The proposed merging of the three cyber bills into one bill as recently announced by the responsible minister could result in the muddying and undermining of other fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution,” said MISA Zimbabwe in a recent statement. “Grouping fundamental rights such as the right to privacy, access to information with consumer rights and cyber security into one piece of legislation, has the potential of undermining the protection of those rights.”
MISA Zimbabwe’s statement added:
Government’s decision to interpret the right to privacy, and consumers’ online rights from a cybersecurity perspective is a narrow approach that could result in restricting fundamental rights under the guise of promoting security.
Once Mnangagwa’s omnibus cybersecurity bill becomes law, it will join an impressive list of draconian Mugabe-era surveillance and information control laws. These include the Posts and Telecommunications Act of 2000, Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), an omnibus Act passed in 2002, and the Interception of Communications Act (ICA), enacted in 2007.
A December 2016 policy brief (PDF) on emerging cybersecurity bills in Zimbabwe and several countries in Southern Africa by Access Now raised several concerns, including the criminalization of computer access and use, questionable mandatory data retention practices, promotion of government hacking, and lack of judicial and legislative oversight.
Section 57 of the Zimbabwe constitution states that “every person has the right to privacy”, including the right not to have “the privacy of their communications infringed”. Section 61 upholds the “right to freedom of expression”, including the “freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information”. So far, Mnangagwa’s future omnibus cybersecurity law makes no guarantees that these rights will be protected. The new regime in Harare has so far made no guarantees that Zimbabwe’s law enforcement and spying agencies will be accountable while in the processes of tackling cybercrime.
Zimbabwe’s first post-Mugabe election, scheduled for July 30th, offers Zimbabweans the opportunity to reclaim the cyberspace and their Internet-related rights. Only a vote for real change from ZANU PF rule can guarantee a break from Mugabe’s digital authoritarianism. Mnangagwa’s Mugabe-era Cybersecurity and Cybercrimes Bill has no place in a democratic 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 Zimbabwe’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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