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11 Oct 2013 00:00
Listening: The MDC says that the new law, like the Public Order and Security Act in the past, could be used by Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe to crack down on political opponents. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
New regulations in Zimbabwe that require telecommunication firms to record and keep details about text messages, phone calls and emails of clients for up to five years have elicited strong condemnation from civil society, which says it is a violation of the new Constitution.
The regulations mandate players in the telecommunications sector, including broadband providers, landline and mobile phone companies, to store mobile phone messages, calls, emails and all websites visited by their clients for up to five years to safeguard "national security".
The information can be used on demand by law enforcement agencies including state security.
Previously, law enforcement agencies used provisions in the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act or the Interception of Communications Act to request, for instance, phone records from telecommunication firms, but they first needed to obtain a warrant from the courts.
The new regulations allow state authorities to demand information without a warrant, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T) has pointed out in its vehement opposition to the law.
The sentiment among opposition parties and civil society is that, apart from being "draconian", the new law also violates the right to privacy guaranteed in the new Constitution.
Zimbabwe adopted a new Constitution this year. The MDC-T pointed out that the omission of judicial oversight – the need for authorities first to obtain a court warrant – in obtaining citizens' telephone conversations raised suspicion and speculation about the real motive of the law.
"Whereas state agents can obtain information on an individual from the service providers, the individual is not allowed access to the same information that the state agents would have obtained," reads part of an MDC-T statement, adding that it was designed to shrink the rights of Zimbabweans.
The party said the regulations confirmed that Zanu-PF wanted to turn Zimbabwe into a police state where individual rights were not respected.
Chris Mhike, a prominent Harare human rights lawyer, said: "The primary problem with the new regulation is that it will be possible for the authorities to have access to communication without a requisite warrant.
The absence of judiciary overview in the interception process makes the law dangerous to any democracy."
He said that although it is acknowledged and justifiable that there are certain circumstances that require authorities to access certain messages or information to combat terrorism or crime, it was "prudent that the authorities go before the judiciary for it to assess the veracity of the demand".
Vivid Gwede, an officer with the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, said that, although the regulations appear to be normal practice the world over, they are open to manipulation to deal with political opponents by intercepting their private conversations.
"Such a practice can kill democracy, because it unfairly puts Zanu-PF, which controls the state security infrastructure, ahead of its opponents on intelligence matters.
The MDC fears that Mugabe could use the new regulations against his political opponents.
In the past, it has accused him of using the Public Order and Security Act to deal with his opponents by cancelling meetings and arresting them.
Experts point out that, globally, there has been a tightening of communication channels intended to prevent criminal and terrorist activity from being conducted using information technology.
Trevor Maisiri, a political analyst with the International Crisis Group, said Zimbabwe was no exception to this global development.
Point of view
"It must be looked at from the angle of protecting the total good and safety of the nation [rather] than [from the perspective] of individual invasion of privacy. It is important to take a balanced perspective on this issue.
"There may be attempts by others to use these laws for political Machiavellianism, but the original intent must be considered to be a need to enhance national security," said Maisiri.
But MDC-T legislator and award-winning human rights lawyer Arnold Tsunga strongly believes state agencies have been given carte blanche to snoop on citizens.
"The spies have been empowered," said Tsunga.
In the run-up to the polls, scandalous details about Tsvangirai's wife, Elizabeth, were leaked from her mobile phone to state media, allegedly by the Central intelligence Organisation.
'Priorities are misplaced'
The papers published text messages purportedly between Tsvangirai's wife and a former lover, suggesting she was still romantically involved with a former boyfriend.
The conversations between Elizabeth and the former lover were published verbatim in the state-controlled media, giving credence to fears that state authorities were spying on their citizens.
The MDC-T said the messages were a Zanu-PF ploy to tarnish Tsvangirai's reputation ahead of the polls.
Maxwell Saungweme, a development specialist, said the new regulations were "sad and a sign of a government whose priorities are misplaced".
He said the legislation would "gag people's freedom. Now that the laws are in place, they need to invest a lot of money in procuring spying equipment and enforcing these laws at the expense of investing in economically productive activities to reduce poverty levels."
But political commentator Jack Zaba said the new government feared the unknown and the possibility of "Arab-style" uprisings co-ordinated by new media technology.
Asked to respond to allegations that the new regulation infringed on the right to privacy, Psychology Maziwisa, the Zanu-PF deputy director of information and publicity on Thursday dismissed the concerns.
"There's nothing amiss about that, it happens all over the world. Ask Edward Snowden," said Maziwisa.
"Our motive is not sinister. It is driven by national interest. This is a national security issue not a personal one."
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