'Enemies of the State' Targeted

Zimbabwean journalists took to the streets of Harare in May 2006 to mark the World Press Freedom Day. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Barely a month since President Robert Mugabe signed a wire-tapping bill into law, government goons are busy at work, targeting perceived "enemies of the state" with the revelation that they have drawn up a list of journalists and Web sites for monitoring. is among those that have been blacklisted.

The authenticity of the list has been verified by sources close to the dreaded spy agency, the Central Intelligence Organization (C.I.O.). It reportedly includes 41 Web sites — most which have published news deemed adverse to the government. In addition, a hit list names 25 journalists for "elimination," of which 10 are employed by the government press.

A report in the privately-owned Zimbabwe Independent (Aug. 10) indicated it was at a recent meeting that the ruling party's Politburo discussed the secret list containing online publications, including Web sites for the Cable News Network (C.N.N.) and the United States Embassy in Harare. The newspaper said the list included more than 20 sites created or run by exiled Zimbabweans, along with international human rights and news online publications such as Amnesty International, the Washington Post and the I.P.S.

Close sources have told that the government began eavesdropping on telephone conversations and monitoring conventional mail long before the Interception of Communications Act was crafted. Some of the monitored e-mails have been made available to select journalists in Zimbabwe as proof.

"I was shocked when one of the C.I.O. produced a number of stories l had written for a foreign Web site, in some instances with alternations made by the C.I.O.," said one journalist, who suspected his name was on the list. "You are safer talking to someone face to face than on the telephone or communicating to them on e-mail, especially when you work for a government institution."

The source said, for example, that Zimbabwe's central bank is thought to have installed an e-mail monitoring software several months back. The software blocks certain words that may be linked to politics, democracy or opposition figures.

With its uncanny reputation for rubberstamping even the most unconstitutional of laws, it came as no surprise that Zimbabwe's majority Zanu-PF lawmakers voted overwhelmingly for a new law legalizing state-sanctioned eavesdropping. What many have long feared has happened.

Zimbabwe's government has long itched to end the press freedoms it blames for the country's bad international image. The independent press, civil and human rights activists and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change are viewed as "enemies of the state." The new law is the final nail in democracy's coffin. Without an outlet to tell the world what is happening in Zimbabwe, Mugabe and his cronies have no reason to lose sleep about what will be on the 'net or in international newspapers about their excesses. Most comforting of all is that the new law, perfectly disguised as a deterrent against terrorism, gives the government carte blanche to wiretap conversations without shame.

While some people remain skeptical about the government's ability to effectively eavesdrop on telephone and e-mail, in terms of having the right equipment and personnel to do so, those in the know have warned journalists and opposition activists to watch their backs because "they being watched and are easy targets for framing." In truth, the law is designed to instill fear among journalists and human rights activists that "Big Brother" is watching and listening, in a country where making a joke about the President is a punishable offence.

The Interception of Communications Act allows government authorities and agencies to open post office mail and electronic mail as well as demand that internet service providers (I.S.P.s) provide details of such without seeking warrants from the courts. I.S.P.s 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.

The Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association (Z.I.S.P.A.) has indicated that the legal requirements of the Act mandated them into buying the equipment, a requirement most cannot afford. Z.I.S.P.A. said it would be a battle for its members to buy intercepting equipment, some of it pegged at $1 million, to comply with the law. Chairperson Shadreck Nkala told the press that I.S.P.s were in a fix because they could not afford to buy and install the spying equipment without going bust, but by not doing so risked being on the wrong side of the law.

"The government has to contribute funds for the equipment," Nkala is quoted as stating in the private weekly The Standard (Aug. 12): "We engaged Potraz and the Ministry of Transport and communication on the matter and they have to play a role as well. We will meet with the government soon to chart the way forward."

Meanwhile, information technology experts are convinced that the government, aware of the financial implications of installing monitoring equipment, made it mandatory for the I.S.P.s to bear the costs of installing the equipment, saving it the trouble and the money.

The eavesdropping law, political analysts posit, will serve President Mugabe well, especially in the run up to the 2008 presidential and parliamentary polls. Mugabe, no stranger to political demagoguery, could well use the Act to "talk down" his political opponents and manipulate the polls in his favor.

Zimbabwe's minister of information and publicity, Sikhanyiso Ndlovu, could not have described the law better when he told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (C.P.J.) that it was aimed at "imperialist-sponsored journalists with hidden agendas."

The passing of the Act is a slap in the face to 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 Act because they violated Section 20 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe. Section 20 of the constitution provides for freedom of expression, freedom to receive and impart ideas and freedom from interference with one's correspondence. But the government does not care about this infringement of constitutional rights. The Act — already widely condemned by journalists, civil rights and political groups — states that 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."

Moreover, the Act empowers the chief of defense, the director-general of the C.I.O., 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. State agencies are empowered to open mail passing through the post and through licensed courier service providers. The minister of transport and communications is authorized 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."

The law also enables government to set up a telecommunications agency called the Monitoring (and) Interception of Communications Center from where spy units will operate facilities to pry into messages from both fixed and mobile phones. It is understood that plans are underway to import equipment to be installed at monitoring centers in the capital Harare and the second city of Bulawayo, thanks to strong diplomatic and investment ties with the People's Republic of China, which has perfected eavesdropping on the Internet.

Unconfirmed press reports suggest that Chinese instructors have trained 45 state security operatives in eavesdropping and at least 10 of them have been deployed at the Mazoe Earth Satellite station outside Harare, which serves as the portal for Internet traffic in and out of Zimbabwe via satellite connectivity to Intelsat, the world's largest commercial satellite communications services provider.

In the past, China has been credited with helping the Zimbabwe government with jamming radio signals of independent radio stations such as the United States-based Voice of America's Studio 7 and the United Kingdom-based SW Radio Africa. The latter offers news headlines via SMS to a growing audience of about 5,000 mobile phone users and circulates transcripts of interviews via e-mail to Zimbabweans.

"This surveillance law further cuts Zimbabwe off from the world and creates an even more oppressive environment than ever for the press," said C.P.J. Executive Director Joel Simon, adding that, "The international community needs to be aware that Zimbabwe is attempting to suppress any remaining press freedom in its country. Urgent action is required."

Freelance journalists, especially those writing for international publications, online radio stations and Web sites would be affected by the new law. Independent news sites have blossomed outside Zimbabwe's border by providing alternative, up-to-date and incisive news about events at home, circumventing the country's tough media and accreditation laws. Under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, journalists operating without accreditation from the state Media and Information Commission face up to two years in prison. Outside the law they face worse scenarios. They are targets for violence and assault as award-winning freelance photojournalist, Tsvangirai Mukwazhi, found out or face death like one former state television cameraman.

The Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights is mulling challenging the law in court, according to its acting director, Irene Petras, as soon as it has done enough research on the technical issues surrounding the law.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Julius Dawu.