Interception of Communications Act Sparks Debate and Fear: Zimbabwean Human Rights Activists Up in Arms
by Constance Manika
- Zimbabwe -
The recent passing of the Interception of Communication Act, signed into law by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe on August 3, 2007, has sparked much debate and inspired just as much fear in the heart’s of the country’s people. Human rights defenders, activists and Mugabe’s opposition have fiercely attacked the new law, arguing that it’s unconstitutional.
The new legislation grants the president the right to intercept any communications he considers necessary to protect "the interests of national security or the maintenance of law and order".
The purpose of this act is to establish a communications monitoring center operated by appointed officials "whose function shall be to monitor and intercept certain communications in the course of their transmission through a telecommunication, postal or any other related service system".
According to government statements, the monitoring center "shall be the sole facility through which authorized interceptions shall be effected. The center shall be controlled and operated by technical experts designated by the agency".
This law also makes provisions for persons in "positions of authority" to request the interception of communications as they see fit. These individuals include the Chief of the Defense Intelligence, the Director-General of the President's Department of National Security (commonly known as Criminal Investigations Operatives - or CIOs - Mugabe's dreaded 'hit squads"), the Commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the Commissioner-General of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority.
In this provision the Minister of Transport and Communications is authorized to issue an interception warrant to "authorized persons" when he has reason to believe that a serious offense has been, is being or will probably be committed or when the safety or national security of the country is threatened. The minister's issued warrant is only valid for a period not exceeding three months and must specify the name and address of an interception target.
The law states that "no court shall accept as evidence where such evidence has been obtained by means of any interception committed in contravention of this Act".
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are also required "to install hardware and software facilities and devices to enable interception of communications". The ISPs in Zimbabwe are also supposed to modify their Internet links "in a manner in which information can be re-routed to government's monitoring center".
Despite resistance from many ISPs, three major providers have already complied with the new law by installing the necessary equipment to facilitate this state-sponsored spying: Econet’s Ecoweb, TelOne’s ComOne and Telecontract’s Telconet. Other providers continue to balk at the new law, concerned that the legislation will have a negative financial impact on their companies while also violating the privacy of their customers.
The Interception of Communications Act also provides for the lawful detention of any suspicious postal article "where the authorized person has reasonable grounds to suspect that the postal article contains anything [indicating] an offense or attempted offense is being committed”.
While this newly enacted law purports to protect the nation’s interests, the civic society in Zimbabwe smells a big fat rat.
Although many human rights defenders who strongly oppose this law acknowledge that in many democratic countries have similar legislation that provides a legal basis for the interception of "selected communications," they are also highly suspicious given Mugabe's terrible human rights record.
Many activists see the enactment of this new law as one of Mugabe's many evil ploys to fight opposition activists and their leaders pending the 2008 elections. They also fear what the law will do to curtail the freedoms of a civic society that Mugabe only sees as a puppet of the Western world.
Zimbabwe has been a one party state since its independence from Britain in 1980. Mugabe's ruling ZANU PF party has maintained a majority presence in parliament and opposition leaders argue that the 83 year-old ruler intends to keep it that way.
The Crisis In Zimbabwe Coalition (a vibrant human rights organizations that has led numerous campaigns against Mugabe's egregious policies) is one such organization that is convinced that Mugabe has plenty of tricks up his sleeve that he will use to further weaken his opponents before the 2008 presidential and parliamentary elections.
According to the Coalition, the enactment of this "nefarious bill" raises legitimate concerns that the government of Zimbabwe is likely to revoke the Non Governmental Organizations bill, which will effectively begin crippling civil society.
In a petition to the Minister of Justice’s Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, the Coalition asserts that:
The Interception to Communications Act forms part of the tools that the government uses to [destroy] the rights and freedoms of Zimbabweans
The act is the latest and most fatal attack on democracy and joins the class of the undertaker's tools that include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).
[The] Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition is deeply perturbed by the continued closure of democratic space in Zimbabwe. The act is aimed at striping off the citizenry's rights of freedom of expression, which are guaranteed by the Universal Bill of Rights.
As Crisis Coalition, we therefore deplore the motivation by the government of criminalizing the fundamental freedoms. The faith and sincerity in the act is highly questionable. It is not meant to further the interests of the country but of certain private political interests.
In its own petition to the Justice Minister, the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), who have experienced Mugabe's tyranny first hand, also take issue with how the law infringes on the communication rights of Zimbabweans:
Any interception of communication amounts to an interference with communication rights as protected in international law and the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Several jurisdictions have held that the interception of all communications constitutes a serious breach of human rights.
In the past, lawyers who represent human rights activists arrested in demonstrations, or protests or political rallies of the opposition (the majority of whom are members of ZLHR) have been denied access to their clients and have been chased away from police stations.
They have also been ordered to stay away from big political cases and some have even been imprisoned on trumped up charges of this and that. Many have been threatened with murder or have had their offices invaded by Mugabe's "hit squad"- Central Intelligence Operatives armed with search warrants - looking for "subversive material".
This is why the ZLHR has good reason to believe that this law is not going to be used to investigate criminal activities or to safeguard the country's security, as Mugabe would like us to believe. They know that the law intentionally targets them.
But it is not just the politicians of the opposition, the human rights activists or lawyers who are worried by this new law but the many Zimbabwean journalists who now struggle to make a living in online journalism after Mugabe’s draconian law, AIPPA, forced the closures of many independent newspapers. Enacted in 2000, AIPPA is the brainchild of the then Minister of Information and Publicity in the president's office and cabinet, Jonathan Moyo.
The Daily News and The Daily News on Sunday were the first publications forced to close in 2003 for operating without a license from the Media and Information Commission (MIC). Hundreds of journalists and support staff were left jobless.
Under AIPPA, this government controlled commission is supposed to license all newspapers and practicing journalists, but in 2003 management at both papers were challenging the constitutionality of the license required for operation. At that time, The Daily News was a fulcrum of information as it covered many issues boldly; this obviously did not sit well with Mugabe's regime. When his cronies snooped around and found out that the paper was not licensed, they had an excuse to shut it down.
Although many court cases have challenged the closure of these two publications, the case is still dragging along in the courts.
In 2004, the Tribune Newspaper was also forced to close under the same law. The Mirror group of newspapers closed down this year after Mugabe's "hit squad" took over the group when its publisher, Ibbo Mandaza, was accused of trumped up charges that he had misused the group's funds. The government claimed that the state was taking over for the sake of the journalists employed there. But less than four months after the forcible takeover, the paper was shut down due to financial difficulties and mismanagement, leaving its journalists unemployed.
As a result, these journalists turned to the country’s online journalism market that was established by some of the more seasoned journalists after they sought funding from sympathizers. In their proposals for funding, they described how many journalists had been pushed out of employment and needed to somehow earn a living. They also said they wanted to provide the millions of Zimbabweans living in the Diaspora with news from home. Some of the sites that have since emerged include ZimOnline, NewZimbabwe, The Zimbabwe Times, Zimbabwean Journalist, Zimdaily and ZWNews.Hundreds of journalists now survive on these online publications, but the new interception law could mean that many freelance journalists may find themselves in jail accused of treason. Just by emailing a story in which Mugabe is portrayed in a negative light to any one of these online news agencies could be seen as "subversive". Journalists would then find the notorious CIO at their door in no time.
"The state could just simply prevent the email from going out of the country and ask the Internet Service Providers to provide details of the sender and then institute investigations," said one ISP who prefers to remain anonymous. "It would be difficult of course to monitor Internet cafés and trace someone because people come and go, but for people sending emails [at their offices], it is very simple to monitor. For the internet cafés they can just prevent the information from leaving the country and maybe take to task the Internet café owner."
Sadly, this is only Mugabe's latest attack on the rights of the Zimbabwean people. As I write this piece I hope that it won’t be intercepted and viewed as "subversive material", otherwise I might have Mugabe's 'hit squad" knocking on my door.
About the Author
Constance Manika is a journalist who works for the independent press in Zimbabwe. She writes under this pseudonym to escape prosecution from a government whose onslaught and level of intolerance to journalists in the independent press is well documented.
In Meltdown in Zimbabwe, an exclusive and ongoing series at The WIP, Constance provides continued on-the-ground reporting from her embattled country where Zimbabweans struggle daily for democracy, economic sustainability and human rights.