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ZIMBABWE: Bill proposes state access to electronic communications

HARARE, 30 August 2006 (IRIN) - Zimbabwe is proposing to add another law to its raft of existing media legislation, further narrowing the space for freedom of expression.

Civic society presented a united front at a parliamentary portfolio hearing but the proposed legislation appears to be a foregone conclusion, with electronic censorship apparatus already undergoing tests.

The parliamentary communications portfolio committee began hearing oral submissions on the Interception of Communications Bill on Wednesday. If passed, it will allow the military, intelligence services, police and the office of the president to monitor e-mail correspondence, eavesdrop on telephone conversations and censor internet access.

The Media Alliance, a media umbrella body, told portfolio committee chairperson Leo Mugabe, a nephew of President Robert Mugabe, that in its present form the bill infringed constitutional guarantees of the freedom of expression. The alliance represents the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists, the Zimbabwe National Editors' Forum, the Media Monitoring Project of Zimbabwe and the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe.

According to media lawyer Wilbert Mandinde, the proposed law comes on top of existing legislation that has led to the closure of six newspapers. "The prevailing legislative environment has severely hindered and undermined the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and information in Zimbabwe. It is the hope of the organisations that the committee shall note our concern and, by so doing, assist in protecting the rights of Zimbabweans as enshrined in the constitution."

President Mugabe, after being isolated from Western countries on grounds of human rights abuses, has adopted a 'look east' policy in a bid to secure foreign investment, resulting in the acquisition of electronic censorship and surveillance systems from China, among other imports, according to local media reports.

A report by Human Rights Watch this month commented: "China's system of internet censorship and surveillance, popularly known as the 'Great Firewall', is the most advanced in the world."

The proposed legislation also forces internet service providers to buy surveillance equipment at a cost of US$1 million per provider, a stipulation that could force many service providers to shut down, as the shortage of foreign currency is symptomatic of the country's economic meltdown. Zimbabwe has the highest inflation rate in the world - around 1,000 percent annually - and unemployment of more than 70 percent.

A spokesman for the Zimbabwe Internet Service Providers Association, Jim Holland, said the proposed law would allow interception of private and confidential information.

"This could include communications between lawyers and clients, doctors and patients, priests and their flock, journalists and their sources, for example. These could all involve completely legal activities, but disclosure of information in such communications could cause serious harm to the individuals concerned."

Holland recommended to the committee that the bill be withdrawn. Veritas, an organisation encouraging the promulgation of good laws, and Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights also called for withdrawal of the bill.

Brigadier Sango, a serving army officer, told the committee in his submission that "in these days of the scourge of 'mercenaryism', terrorism and organised crime, it is our feeling that if the bill is signed into law, it will help us fight the scourges."

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Theme (s): Human Rights,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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