ON June 16, 1972, an alert security guard manning one of the entrances at the Watergate Hotel, Washington DC, discovered a piece of tape wrapped around the lock of a door that led to the National Democratic Headquarters.
Editor’s Memo with Brian Mangwende
Little did he know he was foiling an attempt of what was later to become one of the most significant scandals of the 20th century, phone-hacking –– or phone-tapping.
As investigations into what later came to be known as the Watergate Scandal progressed, US President Richard Nixon argued the tapes contained information between him and his advisors, a defence the Supreme Court threw out without hesitation.
It was then discovered the tapes had 18 minutes of silence which were never explained, prompting the House of Representatives, two years later, to approve articles of impeachment against Nixon, namely for abuse of power, obstruction of justice and defiance of a committee subpoena.
Inevitably, after it became apparent Nixon was closely involved in the phone-hacking without permission from the courts, he was forced to resign, becoming the first serving American president to leave office ingloriously. Nixon had attempted to use the CIA to thwart an FBI probe into spying on people’s conversations.
And just recently, News of the World, a prominent British newspaper in existence for 168 years, was forced to shut down following an inquiry by the United Kingdom’s Lord Justice Leveson, which found publisher Rupert Murdoch guilty of improperly accessing private information and putting it out in the public domain.
Subsequently, when news reached the United States where Murdoch’s News Corporation is headquartered and has several operations, the FBI launched an investigation to establish whether even voicemails of the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks were accessed.
Despite these examples which led to the resignation of a president and the downfall of a authoritative publication, Zimbabweans woke up on Tuesday to hear that effective from that day, the Zanu PF government had authorised security agents to spy on their telephone records, text messages and internet communication through the proclamation of Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013 on Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations 2013 gazetted last Friday.
But what has prompted this drastic move which infringes on the people’s rights to privacy of communication and other protection laws?
It’s outrageous to learn that citizens who, ostensibly, resoundingly voted for Zanu PF in the July 31 polls are now targets for the country’s national security agents’ spying operations.
The snooping can be abused for stalking or extortion purposes. Even Google had to get rid of an application “Boy Tracker” following an outcry from an incensed public that it was violating privacy rights.
As we reported in August, President Robert Mugabe’s government, through the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO), stepped up mass surveillance on private citizens’ lives, particularly those perceived as political threats, as the monitoring has widened beyond phone-tapping and e-mail interceptions to scrutinising activities on social media such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp. The intensified abuse of state apparatus for partisan political agendas was a result of Mugabe and his party’s paranoid fears of civil unrest following their disputed victory in the July 31 general elections.
Interestingly, it is the same Zanu PF individuals seemingly in favour of this statute that could be targets, especially as regards the party’s succession fight where factions are vying to replace President Robert Mugabe. It is thus surprising that many within Zanu PF this week expressed delight at the statute, begging the question: Is this the case of a turkey celebrating Christmas?
It must be remembered that spying/snooping can have unintended consequences. For instance, if it were to get out of hand for reasons best known to those bent on infringing of people’s rights, spies could access individuals and corporates bank accounts.