THE Zimbabwe National Army commander Edzai Chimonyo was quoted this week as saying the military would soon start snooping into private communications between citizens to guard against what he termed “subversion”.
“I must remind you that our detractors have resorted to the use of social media platforms to subvert security forces in pursuit of their own hidden agendas . . . it must always be the responsibility of every one of you to be on the guard against social media subversion and help the men and women under your command to guard against such threats,” Chimonyo told officers in Gweru last Friday.
This comes as the Cyber Crime, Security and Data Protection Bill is set to be tabled in Parliament for debate. The Bill seeks to combat cybercrime and will give government latitude to snoop on citizens’ private communication.
By legalising snooping of private communication, Zimbabwe will join a list of other countries already doing so.
Regrettably, the world’s oldest democracies are some of the biggest culprits. The United States and the United Kingdom (UK) are just as bad as China and Russia.
The “Big Brother” state or the surveillance state is a common phenomenon and has become worse with the rise in terrorism-related incidents, which are subsequently used as justification for interfering with privacy and dignity. The argument is usually premised on protection of national security.
While it is legitimate for the state to institute measures to protect national security, it must, however, not unduly interfere with other human rights.
In 2018, the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) ruled that the UK government’s mass surveillance programme violated human rights and had “no real safeguards”.
The Strasbourg court said British intelligence agencies’ interception regime violated the right to a private and family life since there was “insufficient oversight” concerning which communications were chosen for examination.
Commenting on the ruling, director of Big Brother Watch, Silkie Carlo said: “Under the guise of counter-terrorism, the UK has adopted the most authoritarian surveillance regime of any Western state, corroding democracy itself and the rights of the British public”.
The problem begins when authoritarian regimes manipulate national security claims to limit or restrict fundamental rights. The issue, therefore, is to ensure there is a fair balance between protecting national security and protecting fundamental rights and freedoms. It is not enough to simply throw the national security justification when there is no real threat that warrants such interference. For instance, is there any serious threat to Zimbabwe’s national security that warrants the threatened interference with fundamental rights and freedoms?
If anything, Chimonyo’s utterances expose government’s warped mindset pertaining to the use of online space in the country. It seems the military believes that the space should be restricted.His comments, especially coming in the aftermath of the internet shutdown of January 2019, raise eyebrows on how government reacts when it is under pressure.
The attempt to snoop on the citizens violates their right to privacy, expression and access to information, as articulated in Sections 57, 61 and 62 of the constitution, respectively. The fact that his pronouncements go beyond the provisions outlined in the Interception of Communications Act, which imposes the burden on mobile network operators to install devises that make it easy for government to snoop on voice calls, is worrisome.
Chimonyo’s assertion is also an attack on the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution of 2012, which declared that the same rights that people have offline must be protected online; essentially meaning digital rights are also human rights.
Lastly, Zimbabwe cannot be open for business when government seeks to implement policies that violate digital rights in the age of the internet. Regulation must be aimed at promoting use of space, not throttling and shutting down the space all together. There is need to protect millions of law-abiding citizens from unjustified intrusion. #HandsOfftheNetZW.