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  • Interception of Communications Bill - Index of articles

  • Someone might be listening
    IRIN News
    June 29, 2007

    View the Index of articles on the Interception of Communications Bill

    The Interception of Communications Bill, awaiting only Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe's signature to become law, will further constrict the flow of information already hampered by other laws deemed repressive, claimed civil society groups.

    If approved by the president, the law will empower the government to tap telephone conversations, check emails and monitor cyberspace for material seen as posing a threat to national security.

    The bill, described by Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), as "badly drafted, self-destructive and disrespectful of the fundamental rights and freedoms of the populace", was recently passed by parliament.

    Independent media reports alleged that the government was in the process of installing imported call-monitoring equipment. Nelson Chamisa, a member of parliament from the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), claimed during a debate in the House that a phonecall interceptor had been set up outside Harare, the capital.

    "Even before the bill has been passed into law, there is already evidence that the little space for freedom of expression that remained has been affected," Foster Dongozi, secretary-general of the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and a reporter for an independent newspaper, told IRIN.

    "Following parliamentary acceptance of the bill, fear has gripped sources of information and journalists, to the extent that there is a reluctance to release ... [information], thus the reduced capacity by the media to get to the truth," said Dongozi, and cited a case in which a representative of an organisation had refused to talk to him because he was afraid the government had begun monitoring people.

    In the interest of national security

    The official daily newspaper, The Herald, quoted Transport and Communications Minister Christopher Mushohwe as telling parliament earlier this month that the proposed law was crucial because the advancement in information technology posed a threat to national security.

    He said the bill had taken into account individual rights, as enshrined in the Constitution, and the national interest. Mushohwe pointed out that the legislation was not peculiar to Zimbabwe, and other countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom and South Africa, had similar statutes. "These are countries which are regarded as the beacons of democracy," Mushowe said.

    Under the proposed new law telecommunication providers will be required to install hardware and software enabling the interception of communications.

    For the last six years the government has used two other laws - the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) - to stifle freedom of expression.

    POSA has been invoked to stop or ban gatherings considered too critical of the government; AIPPA, which regulates media operations through a commission, was used to shut down several independent newspapers. Heavy fines can be imposed on journalists and media houses for printing or airing any information the commission deems to be untrue.

    Less room to move

    Dongozi said the ZUJ was "dismayed at this renewed onslaught on the media", adding that the government had chosen to snoop on private and professional communication after realising that many people were turning to cyberspace to exchange information.

    "The phone and the internet are now the main sources of livelihood for many journalists who have been rendered jobless by AIPPA, and it is regrettable that the government is attempting to put the final nail on media freedom through another Big Brother law," said Dongozi.

    According to one freelance reporter: "The operating atmosphere is too heavy for journalists; we are always casting a glance over the shoulder because we feel we are being watched and followed. Now it is worse, because we are also being listened to; it is so scary."

    In submissions to parliament in April 2006, the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) urged that the Interception of Communications Bill be thrown out.

    "Zimbabweans have witnessed the promulgation of a number of repressive laws, which have contributed to the shrinking of the democratic space and the operating environment of human rights defenders and activists," the media watchdog wrote.

    "The introduction of the ... bill adds to the number of laws which have attacked the enjoyment and furtherance of human rights in Zimbabwe, in particular freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information among other groups."

    MISA-Zimbabwe's legal representatives argued that the bill was unconstitutional, saying that it was in contravention of section 20 of the constitution, which provides for freedom of expression, whereas "interception connotes interference, obstruction, stoppage of flow, seizure and grabbing [of information]".

    Political expression

    The MDC said although it had nothing to hide, it suspected that the law would be abused to victimise its members under the guise of preserving national security.

    "The bill is yet another tool in the devil's box. An axe is not bad when used to fell a tree, only becoming so when one murders his child with it; similarly, the law would not be bad if it were not clear that it is intended to cripple the opposition, particularly in the run-up to next year's presidential and parliamentary elections," said Chamisa, spokesman for the MDC faction led by Morgan Tsvangirai.

    Without a vibrant, independent media, he told IRIN, the opposition would find it difficult to reach out to the electorate ahead of next year's elections.

    The Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), a labour umbrella body whose members have been arrested while protesting against the rising cost of living and unemployment, maintained that the country was not under any security threat to warrant such a law.

    "Communication is a human rights issue, and we are concerned that the bill is being pushed through even when there are no signs that the country is under threat of international terrorism or internal war," ZCTU secretary-general Wellington Chibebe told IRIN.

    The unions were also afraid that if the bill passed into law it would further restrict their efforts to monitor and report labour issues.

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