Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

New Intercept Law Condemned

Wide-ranging powers to conduct surveillance are designed to extend the government’s grip at a time when the international mediation effort is focused on greater openness.
By Joseph Sithole
A new law allowing the security services to snoop into private correspondence, listen in to phone calls and track internet communications is the latest manifestation of growing paranoia in the Zimbabwean government, local analysts say.

Analysts say the Interception of Communications Act is part of measures to ensure ZANU-PF has an easy run in next year’s elections, as it strives to retain power in the face of a devastating eight-year economic depression. Rather than opening up the space for political pluralism, as presupposed by the mediation effort led by South African president Thabo Mbeki, the government was doing exactly the opposite, they said.

President Robert Mugabe signed the controversial bill into law on August 3 after parliament passed it on July 13.

The new law gives police and other authorities to intercept letters, emails, phone calls and faxes. Internet providers will have to install the hardware and software necessary to intercept messages. The information gathered will either be forwarded to special monitoring centres or rerouted there automatically.

Conventional mail can be opened if the interior minister issues a warrant to the police, civilian and military intelligence agencies or taxation service, in cases where a serious offence is believed to have been or might be committed, or where there is a perceived threat to national security. Once granted, the surveillance warrant is effective for at least three months.

Media watchdog groups and the Zimbabwean opposition have reacted with outrage.

Nelson Chamisa, a member of parliament and spokesman for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, described the law as “an unjustifiable invasion of a person’s rights”.

The move showed that the government was at war with its people, he said in remarks to a local paper, adding that the regime was in “a state of paranoia and panic”.

An independent journalist, who declined to be named, said the new law “exposes us all to the prying eyes of the state” and “makes privacy a privilege rather than a right for the individual”.

“It reminds one of Nazi Germany and the Gestapo,” he added.

The international media rights group Reporters Without Borders said, "The promulgation of this law is further evidence of Mugabe's desire to keep news and information under close control. Zimbabwe had already given itself one of the world's most repressive legislative arsenals as regards press freedom. Now all forms of communication have been placed under surveillance."

The government already has draconian laws in place - the Public Order and Security Act severely restricts the activities of opposition parties, while the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act imposes stringent restrictions on private media and journalists.

A political scientist at the University of Zimbabwe in Harare said the new surveillance rules were designed to allow the Mugabe administration to monitor and outmanoeuvre its opponents.

“The real target of this law is the opposition,” said the academic, who did not want to be named. “Government wants to fully monitor the activities of the MDC and civic society organisations, which government accuses of working to remove it from power…. It will become easy to destabilise the opposition because the government can easily have access to all their strategies.”

However, this tough approach could prove counterproductive for the government.

“Zimbabwe is already a pariah state and the last thing one wants is further isolation. But that is precisely what the government is doing,” said the political scientist, noting that previous disputed election results had created “a crisis of legitimacy”.

He noted that democratic reforms were high on the MDC’s agenda in the South African president’s ongoing mediation efforts.

“What everybody is calling for as we move closer to next year’s election is a transparent process that will produce an acceptable result,” he said. “These undemocratic laws are not the way to go.”

Mugabe signed the intercept law at the same time as the Anti-Terrorism Act, which allows the authorities to detain anyone suspected of involvement in “anti-Zimbabwe activities”.

Information Minister Sikhanyiso Ndlovu said recently that only people involved in terrorist activity needed to worry about the new laws, suggesting they were analogous to the tougher legislation that the United States and Britain introduced to counter heightened security threats.

As well as groups to whom the government is hostile, there are fears that ordinary Zimbabweans will find themselves caught in the net.

The Harare-based political scientist noted that electronic intercept systems work by picking up on a predetermined set of words. “It means any individual using certain names and terms can be put under surveillance even if they didn’t have any sinister motives in using that combination of terms and names,” he said.

A lawyer in Harare who asked to remain anonymous commented, “What it all boils down to is that the individual concerned is entirely at the mercy of the security authority”.

When the bill was being debated last year, the Association for Internet Service Providers warned that private and confidential information could easily be misused by the security agencies. Communications between lawyers and clients, or doctors and patients, for example, could pass into the wrong hands. Then the only recourse for the individual concerned would be to appeal to the same minister who authorised the intercept in the first place.

A senior manager with an internet firm expressed concern that service providers and mobile phone companies would effectively become agents of the state.

“This is going to cost them dearly in terms of foreign currency required to import the equipment,” he said, “but more than that, it is going to cost them in terms of business confidence. There is a clear conflict of interest when a service provider is also expected to spy on his clients and pass private information to the state.

He predicted that the public would lose confidence in provider companies, adding, “There is going to be mutual suspicion between service providers and their clients, which is very bad for business.”

Joseph Sithole is the pseudonym of a journalist in Harare

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