By Nqaba Matshazi
Internet-based communications such as WhatsApp and Facebook have given Zimbabweans an alternate space where they can express their views without much restriction. Unlike in the offline space where laws such as the Access to Information and Protection and Privacy Act (AIPPA), and parts of the Criminal Law Code still continue to criminalise fair comment and expression.
Online platforms enable people to participate in their various areas of interest and to exchange their views based on their beliefs and the dictates of their conscience. In this sense, such online platforms allow people to enjoy their online or digital rights. Unfortunately, governments that are intolerant of critical and dissenting views shared online, implement measures meant to curb online participation and enjoyment of rights.
In Zimbabwe, for example, there have been suggestions by the current government to regulate social media. One recent report has even called for a vetting process before allowing people to use online platforms. Similar measures have led to the strict control of cyberspace in countries such as Egypt and China where government criticism online and offline is met with stiff penalties.
At a glance, it is easy to laugh at these Zimbabwean suggestions as ludicrous, but one need only look at the developing trend to see a government that is increasingly paranoid about free speech in online environments and is working on new ways to stifle the right to expression.
There is a precedent to this. In July 2016, at the height of the #ThisFlag protests, Zimbabwe experienced a short-lived Internet shutdown. This shut down could have been ill-justified as being in reaction to a security threat but its real effect was to infringe on people’s digital rights
Digital rights are not the reserve of a specific class of citizens but they extend to every human being who makes use of ICTs to communicate and access information. Like fundamental rights, digital rights have their origins in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was adopted in 1948 by the United Nations (UN) – it is just that digital rights apply to online activities.
According to Deutsche Welle, in 2012, 2014 and 2016, the UN Human Rights Council agreed to a resolution that the “same rights that people have offline must also be protected online.”
To allay fears that the government would shut down the internet towards the 2018 elections, and by so doing infringe on Zimbabweans’ digital rights, the State media had to report that authorities would not shut down the internet nor would it increase digital surveillance.
Zimbabwe’s Constitution protects the right to free speech and assembly, this protection extends to both online and offline enjoyment of these rights.
That is why the internet blackout of July 2016, which many feared to be a harbinger of a shutting down of the online civic space, was a blatant violation of the rights of free speech and freedom of assembly.
In the same vein, threats to regulate social media and social media users, no matter how improbable they currently seem, should rightly send a chill down the spine because they point to a high likelihood of digital rights violations.
These violations, carried out in the name of regulating the digital world may come through the physical control of the ICT equipment such as the Internet gateways that connect Zimbabwe to the rest of the world. This was mooted in the National Cybersecurity Policy launched this year. If authorities do not shut down the multiple Internet gateways, they have another option, which is to prosecute those it deems to have the most critical voices online.
The State has already shown that it has an appetite of going down this latter route, with the prosecution of Shadaya Tawona over what many thought was an innocent “retweet” of a parody account.
For the sceptics, this was a clear sign that the government is wary of free speech and will use whatever means to clamp down on it.
On the other hand, the government has consistently blamed social media for when things go wrong, and some say this is ominous.
For example, in October this year, at the height of a panic buying spree, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said hoarding was being driven by social media, while prior to that he had said his administration would start naming and shaming anyone who they alleged was responsible for spreading fake news on those platforms.
While the naming and shaming is yet to happen, these incidents could be enough to create an atmosphere of self-censorship and, thus, militate against free expression online.
Previously, as reported by the Media Institute of Southern Africa – Zimbabwe chapter (Misa Zimbabwe, the army general, Phillip Valerio Sibanda in December 2017 described social media as a “threat” to culture.
It is not clear what action the government will take to curb what it often describes as social media abuse.
It is vitally important that government reaffirm its commitment to protecting free speech, both on and offline. It should also reiterate that unlike in the past and no matter the circumstances, authorities will not resort to internet blackouts in an effort to stifle freedom of speech or assembly.
By doing this, Zimbabwe will be demonstrating that it is moving from archaic laws and is now embracing a modern world with all its changes, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.
At the same time, there is a need for Zimbabwe to amend some of its laws so they reflect technological advancements that have taken place since such laws were promulgated.
On the other hand, the media and civil society have a role to play in helping Zimbabweans understand and appreciate what digital rights are and why they are important for human development. This will ensure that citizens are better able to demand and protect their digital rights from arbitrary abuse whether it be by the State or other online users.
Matshazi is the head of Digital at AMH. This article is written as part of a series for Misa’s Regional Digital Rights campaign. This regional campaign is made possible with support from DW Akademie.
Other articles in the series can be read here;