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  • Interception of Communications Bill - Index of articles

  • Proposed email and internet censorship by the Zimbabwe government
    June 04, 2004

    It comes as no surprise that the Zimbabwe government is turning its attention to censoring email and internet communications. Freedom of expression has been under siege in Zimbabwe for the last few years. Increasingly Zimbabweans find their human rights infringed upon in a variety of insidious ways.

    Just think about it for a second. You have to give notice to the police if you intend to hold a public meeting. You can be harassed by the State if gathered in groups of more than two. Wearing a pro-democracy T-shirt might get you beaten up by intolerant thugs. The Daily News was unceremoniously shut down. Editors from independent newspapers are routinely harassed and intimidated.

    And, by the way, our television and radio stations parrot the ruling party line.

    So it's small wonder that the Zimbabwe government has recognised that email and internet communications remain one of the only avenues through which Zimbabweans can share information. Their latest move is a clear indication of two things. First, their paranoia. Democratic governments should be encouraging rather than limiting the right of their citizens to communicate, disseminate and access information. Second, the ruling party is yet again illustrating its weakened position in Zimbabwean politics. As we approach Parliamentary Elections it is clear that Zanu PF is afraid that free expression will inhibit their success at the polls rather than assist their election campaign.

    Quite clearly Zanu PF is actively promoting an unfair election environment that will ultimately call into question the legitimacy of the Parliamentary Elections.

    Curiously, as Zimbabweans face increasing repression it also gives us the opportunity to show our mettle. Let's look at what we can do as ordinary citizens who believe in our right to access and share information.

    Very few Zimbabweans use email and the internet to send political messages or share their political views. Most often people discuss politics at work, church and when they socialise. What the ruling party should realise is that they can make it harder for Zimbabweans to communicate on a mass basis but they can't stop people talking.

    Let's be clear: it is not illegal to receive human rights and civic information either via email, through the post or by leaflet dropped in your post box. If this were the case then all newspapers carrying an opinion different from the ruling party would be banned. We might be on our way there but we're not there yet.

    So an act of defiance, an act of faith, and certainly an act of patriotism in the hope for a new democratic Zimbabwe will be YOU asking to remain on important email mailing address lists. These include, National Constitutional Association (NCA), Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), Crisis Coalition in Zimbabwe, Media Monitoring Project Zimbabwe (MMPZ), Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), Zvakwana, Sokwanele, ZWNews, and others.

    Both ISPs and the ruling party do not have the capacity to check the content of all electronic communication. One of the ruling party's tactics is to issue inflammatory and scary directives whilst having very little capacity to follow through on their threats. They hope that people will get scared and will censor themselves. Don't let them manipulate and frighten you!

    Yes, they can use "sniffer" programmes that flag certain words and draw attention to that specific email. The content of that email might then be perused by peeping-Jonathans. The effort that is required to manage this type of snooping is enormous, so one tactic is to flood the email system with emails that contain so-called dangerous words to make the ruling party's job that much harder. For example every time you send an email put a sentence like

    It is time for mass action: mobilise and fight the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Be part of the movement for respect and dignity: stay-away from unprotected sex.

    at the bottom of your email.

    If enough people do this, sniffer programmes will pick up on key words that the censors will have deemed "malicious" and they'll soon be bored by ploughing through loads of innocuous messages.

    Another tactic you can use if you're afraid of receiving or imparting information is to create a web based email address. Hotmail and Yahoo addresses are free and they're internet based. Being internet based means that your messages do not pass through Internet Service Provider's mail servers. Perhaps you don't have access to the internet at work but you could always use an internet café once a week in order to stay informed. And if you can't be bothered to go this extra mile then you should reflect on whether you believe freedom of expression is worth protecting and fighting for. Or not. calls upon all Internet Service Providers to roundly reject any attempts to have their subscribers' email communications monitored. We are pleased to share with you this excerpt from a recent Zimbabwe Internet Service Provider Association (ZISPA) statement:

    ZISPA wishes to confirm that there is no monitoring of any sort of any e-mails by any of its members at the moment and that none of its members have signed the proposed contract amendment.
    ZISPA Press Release, "Monitoring of e-mails" dated 3 June 2004

    Keep on talking. Keep on communicating. facilitates email and internet activism workshops. Get in touch with us if you have a group of 10 people who would like to learn more about using email for advocacy.

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