Zimbabwe is clamping down on social media use with a cyber crime bill set to become law

Tawanda Karombo

Zimbabwe has inched closer to clamping down on citizens’ use of social media platforms and will likely fish out and penalize citizens who create and share what is deemed offensive or pornographic material over outlets including WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter.

The Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill of 2019 was passed by president Emerson Mnangagwa’s cabinet on Tuesday, representing an important step towards it becoming law. It still has to be debated and approved by parliament, in which Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF party has a majority.

Mnangagwa said last week the bill has to be fast-tracked to protect Zimbabwe’s “cyber-space”. However, there is wide-spread sentiment the law is being pushed through to deal with potential uprisings, especially as public anger against the government’s austerity measures.

The bill has been criticized for infringing on civil liberties if it becomes law and there are fears from rights and democracy campaigners it could also strengthen any government bid to snoop on private communications of citizens. It sets out penalize people for generation and distribution of “data concerning an identifiable person knowing it to be false and intending to cause psychological or economic” harm.

The bill was first mulled under the late former leader, Robert Mugabe in 2016 and took hold in 2017 after major protests against Mugabe and economic decline using the #tajamuka, #Mugabemustgo and #thisflag banners and tags broke out in Harare.

Some Zimbabweans are also worried Mnangagwa is pushing the bill to become law so he can use it to deal with potential uprisings fueled through social media.

WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook have become key platforms for spreading information about protests in Zimbabwe and elsewhere in Africa. WhatsApp in particular, is very well used in Zimbabwe, where it accounts for nearly 50% of all internet use in the country.

Zimbabwean government officials have long complained these platforms are being abused to spread false news, most of which is deemed by authorities to be offensive. Mnangagwa’s government ordered a social media black-out in January this year after deadly protests rocked major urban centers following a massive fuel price hike.

The Cyber Crime and Cyber Security Bill “seeks to combat cyber-crime and increase cyber security” and to foster “data protection with due regard to constitutional rights and public interest” said justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi in his presentation of the bill to cabinet. It will also provision for the setting up of a data protection authority and data security center.

The controversial bill has, however, been welcomed in some circles, especially on the principle of “curbing the transmission of pornographic material” in the Zimbabwean context where revenge pornography leaks have become common. The Human Rights Forum of Zimbabwe said earlier this year that revenge pornography was a form of gender-based violence, hence its call for laws to regulate the transmission of pornography.

Analysts in Zimbabwe such as Pedzisai Ruhanya of the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute believe Mnangagwa’s administration will lean on China for technology and expertise to monitor and regulate social media data under the new cyber-crime law. Zimbabwe has already worked with Chinese technology for facial recognition technology which has been deployed at the country’s borders as well as well as anti-poaching and wildlife monitoring equipment in the Manna Pools resort.

“The technology will likely be Chinese and so will be the expertise for this project (social media regulation). And it’s probably to deal with protests and uprisings,” said Ruhanya.

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