Interception of Communications Bill: One More Reason Why I Hate This Government
Amnesty International has recently launched irrepressible.info, to raise awareness about restrictions on freedom of expression internationally, especially internet freedom.
The campaign is simple. People are urged to sign an online pledge: “I believe the Internet should be a force for political freedom, not repression. People have the right to seek and receive information and to express their peaceful beliefs online without fear or interference. I call on governments to stop the unwarranted restriction of freedom of expression on the Internet – and on companies to stop helping them do it.” They are also encouraged to take other personal action such as writing letters to Chinese Authorities to demand the release of Shi Tao, a journalist serving 10 years in prison for sending an email to a pro-democracy website, or publishing fragments of censored material on their own sites, to demonstrate the irrepressibility of information.
In Zimbabwe, we need to be included in this protest, to create our own irrepressible campaign, and more. The Interception of Communications Bill was gazetted on Friday 26 May. This means it begins its progress through Zimbabwe’s Senate and House of Assembly, a passage likely to be unhindered, given the vast majority the ruling Zanu PF party holds in both houses.
If (when) the Bill becomes law (in as soon as just a few weeks), even articles like this will be suspect—putting not only myself but my service provider at risk—to say nothing of more controversial posts.
The Bill authorises “the Minister,” namely the Minister of Transport and Communications, or any other minister the president appoints to oversee the Bill, to issue warrants to provide for the interception of post, email, telephone communications or “other services.” Intercepting includes reading, listening to, recording and copying these communications. The warrants can be applied for by the Chief of the Defence Intelligence, the Director-General of the President's department on national security, the Commissioner of the Zimbabwe Republic Police and the Commissioner-General of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority, or their nominees. The Minister is to issue an interception warrant when he (or, less likely, she) has “reasonable grounds to believe (among other things) that a serious offence has been or is being or will probably be committed or that there is threat to safety or national security of the country.”
According to the Bill, the "national security of Zimbabwe includes matters relating to the existence, independence and safety of the State.” Given that the President of the Zimbabwe National Students Union (ZINASU) is currently wanted by the police for posing a “threat to national security” due to his support of student protests against unforeseen increases in University tuition, the state is known for its paranoid interpretation of what, exactly, constitutes a “threat to safety or national security.”
These warrants are valid for three months, and can be renewed thereafter on a month by month basis. Ideally, they should be applied for in writing, but in extreme or emergency cases, they can also be granted verbally, though written documentation is supposed to follow.
The Bill obliges telecommunications providers to set up the necessary facilities for intercepting communications, storing them, and transferring them to the communication monitoring centre. Failure to do so, or the withholding of requested communications, carry a fine and/or up to three years imprisonment. Anyone using encrypted communications must provide the key/password for these communications on request to the monitoring authorities, or risk a fine and/or up to five years imprisonment.
So it all works something like this:
1) The army, police, or intelligence service decides that Jane Bloggs is a dubious character, and applies for a warrant to intercept her communications. These could include her text messages, cell phone and land line calls, emails to her known email address(es), communications sent electronically via her ISP, and post arriving at her house.
2) She is not told by any authority that an interception warrant has been issued in her name. The friendly technician at her ISP might want to give her a heads up that she is now being monitored, but given the threat of a three year prison term, is unlikely to do so. Similarly the ISP, phone company and postal workers also face a fine and/or three years jail time for not assisting the “MICC” – Monitoring and Interception of Communications Centre—with whatever information it requests.
3) Knowing the risk of her emails being watched, Jane might choose to use some kind of encryption device. But even if she did, she could at any time be instructed to hand over these passwords—or risk a fine and/or five years imprisonment.
4) With all of Jane’s text messages, emails, internet searches, etc, the state is sure to find something dubious with which they can charge her under any one of Zimbabwe’s other draconian laws—the Public Order and Security Act, the Miscellaneous Offences Act, the Foreign Exchange Controls Act, or the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, for starters. And, since it will have collected this evidence in a nicely “legal” manner, it will be able admissible in court, to strengthen whatever case the state might wish to make against her.
A few years ago, Zimbabweans manage to resist the passage of the NGO Bill, by exposing it for the unconstitutional, illogical piece of repression that it was. It’s past the time to organise the same kind of resistance to the Interception of Communications Bill. If we do not, the Orwellian hell we live in now will only deepen.
If we all carry on writing and speaking and reading what we like, the state would never be able to keep up with all of us, and would fold under the sheer weight of sifting through sheaves of tedious correspondence. I pity the spam, listserves, and newsletters anyone reading my emails would have to keep up with! But sadly, with the self-censorship that many Zimbabweans already tend towards, this may well see many people removing themselves from mailing lists, communicating their thoughts less with friends and family, and speaking out even less frequently and powerfully than we already do. And if that happens, they’ll certainly have won. Even more offensive than the handful of people they might ever actually prosecute with this act is the crime of silencing ourselves, of allowing our fear of their illegitimate authority to determine what we do or do not say.
Never doubt that a consistent, irrepressible, tireless flow of information can unseat a dictator. Indeed, it is among the only things that ever has.
An index of articles and commentary on the Interceptions of Communications Bill is hosted on www.kubatana.net
Censorship, China, Free Speech, Zimbabwe