Freedom of Expression Under Attack

Zimbabweans walk to work as a newspaper carrier does his route on a bike in Harare. As Zimbabwe reels under a world-record inflation, many are forsaking meals, and walking or cycling for scores of miles to work every day in a tortuous battle to survive. An average family of six needs at least 41 million Zimbabwean dollars (US$405) for food to last a month, according to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ) but the average worker earns 14 million dollars. (Photo: Alexander Joe / AFP-Getty Images)

It is not just the shortage of milk, sugar, mealie-meal (corn), democracy, foreign currency, and fuel that top the list of scarcities in Zimbabwe — freedom of expression is also in short supply.

The raft of laws enacted, or in the process of being enacted, provides a telling view of how the government of Robert Mugabe has chipped away at the fundamental freedoms of its citizens and emasculated its press.

From a model democracy and the breadbasket of Southern Africa, in 26 years Zimbabwe has become a pariah state and an 'outpost of tyranny' owing to the acerbic policies that have impoverished it economically and politically.

Zimbabwe enjoys the unenviable honor of having the highest rate of inflation — nearly 1300 percent — for country not at war. Unemployment is at 80 percent and threadbare measures have failed to restore the country's economic fortunes.

The press has been watching and writing, much to the chagrin and annoyance of the government. But to anyone reading and listening to the sanitized news as fawningly portrayed by the government news agencies, all is well in Zimbabwe.

What remains of the independent press has battled to tell the fair story of the situation in Zimbabwe but at great cost to its dignity, freedom, and careers of its journalists. Words to describe the country's freefall into a tin-pot republic are never in short supply. Journalists and ordinary people no longer enjoy constitutional freedom, as the government steps up efforts to punish any person or organization that speaks ill of its overt scorched earth policies.

Mail, E-mail to be Monitored

Soon, thanks to a regime living in fear, the government will be able to eavesdrop on its citizens and will monitor all e-mail traffic, Chinese-style. The government is crafting a law giving it carte blanche to listen into private telephone conversations and to monitor electronic mail, all in a display of totalitarianism disguised as the last line of defending national security.

Confirming long-held fears of a regime bent on entrenching its control over civil liberties, the proposed law is the worse affront to Zimbabweans' constitutional rights in the wake of international reaction to the global threat of terrorism. For a country not at war, the only justified threat is from those seeking political and economic change which the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) has been reluctant to give in to since the country's independence in 1980.

Journalists, the political opposition, along with civil and human rights activities are obvious targets of the proposed law, as the government battles to contain national discontent following opposition threats to lead countrywide mass protests.

Dubbed 'The Interception of Communications Bill' the proposed law, according to press reports, will allow government authorities and agencies to open post office mail and electronic mail as well as demand that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide details of such without seeking warrants from the courts. ISPs will also be required to install software for intercepting e-mail messages for forward transmission to State authorities. In addition, the government will be able to listen to all fixed and mobile phone conversations at will.

Press reports indicate that the Bill, set to be passed by the country's Parliament soon and fast tracked into law, will give President Robert Mugabe even greater authority. The Bill will fly in the face of past court rulings such as that of the Zimbabwe Supreme Court in 2004, which declared unconstitutional Sections 98 and 103 of the Posts and Telecommunications (PTC) Act because they violated Section 20 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Section 20 provides for freedom of expression, freedom to receive and impart ideas, and freedom from interference with one's correspondence.

According to a draft of the Bill, the process of interception should be such that "neither the interception target nor any other unauthorized person is aware of any changes made to fulfill the interception order."

Furthermore, the planned Act will empower the Chief of Defense, the Director-General of the Central Intelligence Organization, the Commissioner of Police and the Commissioner General of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to intercept telephonic messages passed through fixed lines, cellular phones and on the Internet. The Bill also empowers State agencies to open mail passing through the post and through licensed courier service providers. It authorizes the Minister of Transport and Communications to issue a warrant to state functionaries to order the interception of information if there are "reasonable grounds for the minister to think that an offence has been committed or that there is a threat to safety or national security of the country."

Chinese Eavesdropping Techniques

Speculation is high that Zimbabwe will make use of its strong diplomatic, and recent investment ties, with the People's Republic of China — which has perfected eavesdropping on the Internet. Already, the Chinese government is being fingered in helping Zimbabwe install jamming equipment that has blocked the clear reception of the Voice of America's Zimbabwean broadcasts on Studio 7.

A U.K.-based weekly, The Zimbabwean (June 27), has quoted the Zimbabwe Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) describing the planned snooping law as deeply flawed and lacking the basic safeguards against unwarranted invasion of privacy. MISA Zimbabwe Legal Officer, Wilbert Mandinde, told the newspaper in a detailed analysis that the law allowed unwarranted surveillance of democratic activities such as journalism, civic protests, trade unionism, and political opposition.

Besides, the Interception of Communications Bill made no provision for an independent commission to oversee all interception activities or the publication of annual public reports of the same, as is the norm in democratic countries.

Mandinde said the Bill has "immeasurable inadequacies" compared with laws in countries that respect the right to privacy and should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny before it is put before Parliament.

"The bill represents a step backwards and is inconsistent with international standards on human rights and other legal requirements (and) will inevitably lead to abuses," Mandinde said.

While the Interception of Communication Bill is still at the draft stage, some government institutions such as the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe have started blocking e-mails with political content, according to findings by SW Radio Africa News (June 22). The London-based independent radio station which broadcasts to Zimbabwe said its investigations showed that the Central Bank's mail system runs through Tel One (Pvt) Ltd, a government-owned company that provides an Internet hub through its Com-One subsidiary for all the other ISPs.

It is not clear if the mail content manager is being run for all e-mail users or just the Reserve Bank system. U.S.-based NetIQ, a provider of security management solutions, supplied the software that is being used.

No More Joking About Mugabe

The Parliament of Zimbabwe is set to debate proposals to empower the secret police to intercept all mail, telephone and mobile phone communication without court approval — in effect making it unsafe to speak in jest regarding the situation facing Zimbabweans.

Writing in South Africa's Mail and Guardian (July 21), widely distributed in Zimbabwe, AP writer Terry Leonard observed that times are hard and getting harder in Zimbabwe, where people too proud to cry about their troubles could soon find it too dangerous to even joke about them.

"Secret police and intelligence agents could violate attorney-client privilege, track financial transactions and negotiations and eavesdrop on the private lives of anyone in the country. Any time a Zimbabwean visits a website, makes a deal or tells a joke, Big Brother could be listening or watching," wrote Leonard.

He continued: "With a package of other security and media laws, Zimbabwe already has done away with freedom of press and speech. People cannot legally protest against the government, hold political rallies or meetings without prior police approval. Clergymen have been arrested for holding prayer vigils without prior police consent. Jokes about the president are no laughing matter to the government, which has arrested people for insulting the president. It is also illegal to say or write something that can 'falsely' bring the government into disrepute."

The proposed law is an addition to a lethal cocktail of laws that have been passed to deny citizens a number of freedoms such as that of association, free expression, independent media, and political participation. Some of the laws include the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, and the Public Order and Security Act.

Worse still for journalists, the government recently tightened the screws in the new General Laws Amendment Act which paves way for the conviction of journalists or citizens for publishing false information or statements that are prejudicial to the State or are likely to cause, promote, or incite public disorder, or adversely affect the security or economic interests of Zimbabwe. Those convicted could serve up to five years in jail. Zimbabwean journalists face sentences of up to 20 years in jail for committing the same offences under the government's Criminal Codification Act enacted last year.

Attacking Civil Liberties

Early this year, civil liberties suffered another drawback when lawmakers approved extensive constitutional changes through the 17th 22-clause Amendment. This Act restricts property and travel rights. Government, under the law, can seize the passports of its critics. Media owner of the Independent and Standard newspapers in Zimbabwe and the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, Trevor Ncube, had his passport confiscated under this amendment.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Regional and International Instruments guaranteeing the rule of law and independence of the judiciary, such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights (African Charter), and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 17) has removed the fundamental right to property, secure protection of the law, and freedom of movement from the people of Zimbabwe.

In attacking the right to freedom of movement directly, the amendment also indirectly but significantly assaults the rights of freedom of association, and freedom of expression in that the right to travel out of the country will be taken away if one is seen to have associated with real or imaginary government opponents, or uttered statements which in the minds of the Executive are against 'national interests.'

However, the definition of 'national interests' is protected in the proposed Interception of Communications' Bill, and is left to the discretion of State authorities.

The government has taken a tough stand on terrorism with the recent Suppression of Foreign and International Terrorism Bill. The Bill — feared to be aimed at political opponents of the government — will impose life imprisonment for anyone guilty of participating or aiding international terrorism.

The Fund for Peace (FfP) has ranked Zimbabwe fifth among the list of the top 20 most vulnerable States in its second-annual Failed States Index published recently. The Index noted that Zimbabwe is struggling with poor governance and endemic corruption that saw its rankings fall by 12 percent, further pointing to its growing instability.

Drawing a correlation between freedom of expression and economic prosperity, U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell said in a lecture to mark World Press Freedom Day early this year that freedom of expression is a crucial element in a functioning market economy on the microeconomic level:

"Indeed, the 'free flow of information' is an essential element in the definition of 'perfect competition' and 'market economy' in classic economic theory. … It is undeniable that Zimbabwe's economy is in a downward spiral unmatched by any other country not at war. And yet if you rely on the state media things aren't that bad. … Read the government dailies, the only daily newspapers circulated in this country. Listen to state radio, the only radio permitted to broadcast from Zimbabwean soil. Watch TV, the only TV permitted to originate in Zimbabwe. The economy will grow, we're told, 1-2 percent this year, and the agricultural sector by nearly 10 percent. And this despite a 40 percent contradiction over eight years of decline, and no foreseeable change in economic policy on the horizon," Dell told a group of students and guests at the National University of Science and Technology in the second city of Bulawayo.

It is not just the independent press that has fallen victim to the country's skewed policies. International investors and the donor community have fled Zimbabwe. The fallout from the violent land seizures in 2000 has confirmed the government's disregard for property rights. In addition, the threat of a 50 percent indigenous shareholding in the mines could be the undoing of the country's lucrative mining industry.

Surveillance or no surveillance, Zimbabwe will never run out of journalists willing to put their lives on the line in telling like it is. As the New Zealand director of Amnesty International Ced Simpson put it, that beyond the globally-recognized media agencies there are "hundreds of thousands of media workers who wonder every day whether their latest story will land them in prison."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.