Zimbabweans lambast phone-tapping law

Providing false information, such as one's address, upon registering a new SIM card is deemed an offence under the new legislation.

Zimbabweans lambast phone-tapping law

World Bulletin/News Desk

Zimbabweans have criticized their government for enacting a law allowing state agencies to spy on citizens' telephone records, text messages and internet communications, warning that the country was becoming a police state.

"The manner in which the instrument has been framed is unconstitutional because Section 57 of the constitution guarantees the right to privacy," Matshona Ncube, a lawyer and rights activist, told Anadolu Agency.

The new law, which came into effect on Tuesday, will allow Zimbabwean security agencies to access citizens' telephone calls, phone records, text messages and internet communications.

Under the legislation, telecommunications companies will be required to set up a central database of all their subscribers, to which law enforcement agencies will have access.

According to the text of the law, the creation of the database shall "assist law enforcement agencies in safeguarding national security," "assist with the provision of a mobile-based emergency-warning system," and "authorise research in the sector," among other things.

The legislation will also oblige telecommunications firms to provide data on subscribers after receiving a "written request signed by a law enforcement agent at the rank of assistant police commissioner or a coordinate rank in any other law enforcement agency."

It will also prohibit telecommunication companies from activating any SIM card that is not fully registered.

Providing false information, such as one's address, upon registering a new SIM card is deemed an offence under the new legislation.

Police state

According to Ncube, the new law contradicts the Bill of Rights as they are enshrined in the national constitution.

"One's private communications should not be interfered with by anyone, including the state," Ncube said. "The state is seeking to go against that provision."

Ncube, like many observers, fears the new law will lead to major infringements of several basic civil rights.

"This matter should be taken to the Constitutional Court because it creates a police state where the police become a law unto themselves without having to go to court," said Ncube. "They can now interfere with your private communication, which is really criminal."

Previously, the government could only access personal phone records when it was deemed "absolutely necessary."

In such cases, permission had to be sought through court, which was allowed to grant warrants for such interceptions if it found there were justifiable reasons to do so.

"With only the signature of an assistant commissioner or higher rank now required, the system can be grossly abused," Michael Ndlovu, a resident of Bulawayo, the country's second largest city, told AA.

"There are no mechanisms within the law to protect the ordinary person against abuse by those authorized to spy," he asserted. "It is not even clear in what situation the government will demand records of phone calls and messages."

"What if they have been doing it all this time and they just want to cover their tracks?" Ndlovu asked. "We might as well forget about privacy."


Zimbabwe Union of Journalists Secretary-General Foster Dongozi said that, even though terrorism was a daily phenomenon, it still didn't justify such draconian legislation.

"When you look at the safety of journalists and their private information, the law is tantamount to eavesdropping and can be used as a basis for persecution and punishment," Dongozi told AA.

"This law infringes on freedom of expression because if people know they are being spied upon, they can practice self-censorship," he added.

Not everyone, however, agrees.

Clayton Moyo, a media scholar at the National University of Science and Technology, said it was not surprising that the government was extending its surveillance system.

"Zimbabwe is not an exception though. We have seen this happening in the US. They [the US] even have such instruments as the Patriot Act, which allows security agencies to snoop into private communications. Even the UK, Russia and China are doing it," he told AA.

"The question, though, is what they want to do with the information they collect," Moyo said.

"We will have a situation where people won't feel safe, and this is proof that freedom in the new information technologies is fallacious," he added.

Magodonga Mahlangu, a leader of the Women of Zimbabwe Arise, a pressure group that advocates for human rights, strongly disagrees.

"This move by the government is shocking," she told AA. "We were thinking that, with the new constitution, we were moving forward in terms of freedoms, but then the government comes up with this law."

"We have now gone a hundred steps back when it comes to our freedom," Mahlangu added.

"As civil society, we need to challenge this law at all costs."

Güncelleme Tarihi: 03 Ekim 2013, 21:27

Muhammed Öylek