/ 27 June 2014

Zim: Kudzayi case to put social media on trial

Congress faces a midnight deadline to reach an agreement or force federal agencies to close
Congress faces a midnight deadline to reach an agreement or force federal agencies to close

The recent arrest of Sunday Mail editor Edmund Kudzayi on charges of terrorism indicates foreboding times for the Zimbabwean media. This is despite Minister of Media, Information and Broadcasting Services Jonathan Moyo’s public commitment to “decriminalise” journalism.

The charges against Kudzayi relate not only to terrorism but also to undermining the president’s authority. The first charge could lead to life imprisonment if he is found guilty.

The mainstream Zimbabwean media has speculated that Kudzayi’s arrest is linked to Zanu-PF’s succession politics. The Zimbabwe Republic Police has since denied that Kudzayi was arrested based on his political affiliations.

What is more surprising is the state’s case that Kudzayi is the author of the anti-ruling party Baba Jukwa Facebook page. Jukwa, who claimed to be a Zanu-PF insider tired of the rot in the party, gained fame and more than 400 000 followers who were hooked on his political revelations of the goings-on in the private corridors of Zanu-PF.

He also posted the cellphone numbers of various ministers, urging members of the public to call them and haul them over the coals for their alleged corruption and mismanagement.

The complexities and legal nuances of Kudzayi’s case will only be fully known once the trial proceeds in court. What is, however, apparent is that the state is very serious about monitoring and bringing to court anyone it deems to have “misused” social media to express opinions or to declare intentions that it regards as criminal.

We’re being closely watched
Even if one claims anonymity on the internet and social media networks, what one posts or writes is being watched closely by the Zimbabwean state and its security agencies – especially if it is of a political nature.

So while the case of the Sunday Mail editor is highly politicised, there is still a baseline to the Zimbabwean state’s punitive attitude towards comments made on social media.

This baseline is now defined by the crosscutting state usage of criminal laws previously meant for traditional media that are now being generously applied to social networking sites or online media. The only difference is that the state is also targeting the user and not only the owner, editor or moderator of the specific social media application or platform. 

In doing so, the state is conflating the virtual world with reality. For example, if one organises a demonstration using social media and if that demonstration does not take place, the very fact of it having been mentioned in cyberspace may be deemed a criminal act, as the planned event would have had no police clearance. 

The virtual world, which Zimbabweans had deemed out of reach of the overreaching arm of the state, is therefore no longer “safe” for citizens who have used it to express their political opinions or to generally rabble-rouse about one political issue or another.

This is the new reality: what is assumed to be harmless opinion or even drivel in the virtual sphere can come to haunt the author in reality – through an arrest. The online world is now potentially no different from the real world for social media users in Zimbabwe.

Where criminal defamation laws were previously used sparsely in relation to social media, it appears that they are now a definitive tool that the Zimbabwean government feels comfortable using.

Harare tailor’s conviction
Another case that demonstrates this is that of a Harare tailor identified as Madzibaba Chacha, who was convicted of being a “criminal nuisance” after a photograph of him wearing police uniform that could have been taken in jest and circulated to a few friends went viral, leading to his arrest. 

Under Zimbabwe’s largely untested new Constitution, it remains to be seen how far the state can act to arrest or detain social media users or “owners”. There will probably be more cases brought before the courts where people are charged with criminal defamation or for “subversive” activities they announced on social media but did not undertake in reality. This is despite a recent Constitutional Court ruling against criminal defamation, which does, however, gives the government latitude to explain to the same court why it is still necessary to retain the same statutes.

The overall effect of the targeting and monitoring of social media is that of censorship, intimidation and fear relating to opinions expressed or actions announced, regardless of whether they translated into reality or not.

For Zimbabweans, social media is now a minefield. Big Brother is watching closely, and – as in George Orwell’s famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – you can be arrested for what you are thinking, even before your thoughts turn into action.

Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity.