Cabinet pushes for social media control

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CABINET has passed the National Information Communication Technology (ICT) policy which empowers government to fully control cyberspace, while facilitating spying on its citizens.

By Hazel Ndebele

The ICT policy tightens government’s grip on cyberspace as all internet gateways and infrastructure will be controlled by a single company, which government has control over.

ICT minister Supa Mandiwanzira confirmed the draft ICT policy which was presented to the Office of the President and Cabinet last year had recently been passed.

The development comes at a time the government has been desperately trying to control the use of the internet and social media in the wake of growing discontent over the deepening socio-economic problems in the country.

In June the #ThisFlag campaign spearheaded by Pastor Evan Mawarire mobilised Zimbabweans to participate in a stay-away which coincided with a civil servants strike. Protest group #Tajamuka/Sesijikile has also been mobilising Zimbabweans to protest against government’s misrule through the social media.

The government has, however, interpreted the social media campaign as part of a strategy to trigger an Arab Spring-like anti-government uprising. On Tuesday, Information minister Christopher Mushohwe said government cannot continue to fold its arms while citizens recklessly violate the constitution through social media. Zimbabwe Defence Forces commander General Constantino Chiwenga has also threatened a crackdown on those who use the social media for “cyber-warfare”.

According to the policy which the Zimbabwe Independent has seen, all internet gateways and infrastructure will be controlled by a single company.

“The government has long stated its policy for a single gateway operator. In order to co-ordinate the proliferation of international gateways and stem revenue losses, there shall be one super gateway which shall be the entry and exit point for all international traffic,” the document says.

Control of all internet gateways through infrastructure sharing as mentioned in the policy will enable government to monitor, filter or even block specific internet services like WhatsApp and Twitter from a central point.

Government, through state regulator Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) and telecoms operators in June, said it would use its database to identify those sending out “subversive” messages.

“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 communication messages, including WhatsApp or any other social media messages that may deemed to cause despondency, incite violence, threaten citizens and cause unrest, will be arrested and dealt with accordingly in the national interest,” the official statement said.

Digital Society of Zimbabwe co-ordinator Christopher Musodza told the Independent the timing of the ICT policy raises eyebrows as it could be seen as part of efforts to spy on citizens and limit freedom of expression.

“It is always difficult for governments all over the world to balance between national security and citizens privacy, and I guess Zimbabwe will be in the same dilemma,” he said.

“National security is a crucial element, but we are not sure if it is for the protection of the citizens or to spy on them and prevent the hashtag movements.

“On a business perspective such oppressive laws are not good for investors as it clearly shows that government can infringe people’s privacy at will. Such laws can affect the general image of the country and as such we will be rated low on global ‘respect to citizens’ privacy’ benchmarks.”

He said lack of judicial oversight makes it difficult to draw the line between national security and the respect of citizens’ digital rights.

Musodza said the ICT policy causes the biggest threat as it sets the tone and direction for the three bills, the Computer and Cyber Crime Bill, the Data Protection Bill, and the Electronic Transactions Bill.

The Computer and Cyber Crime Bill soon to be presented to parliament will enable government to demand the source of information of any content considered as cybercrime from internet service providers.

The newly proposed laws will bolster government’s Rhodesian-like armoury of repressive legislation, consolidating the view that Zimbabwe is now worse than Rhodesia in many respects.

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