Editor’s Memo

Thought control

Iden Wetherell

ALARM bells started ringing this week with reports that the state was attempting to oblige Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to divulge details of mailings deem

ed objectionable or dangerous.

The requirement is contained in a proposed addendum to providers’ franchise contracts sent out by Tel*One with whom ISPs are tied by the umbilical cord of fixed-line telephony.

Zispa, the local association of ISPs, has correctly pointed out that it is not their function to police the Internet. Nor would it be practical to do so. They cannot be expected to store the thousands of mailings they handle every day.

They would be obliged, the addendum says, to provide tracing facilities of messages to Tel*One or government officials where such information is required for investigation of a crime or in the interests of national security. There is also reference to the enforcement of “cyberlaws”.

The use of networks for “anti-national activities” would be an offence, it says.

That wording would indicate where this is coming from. The move reflects a heightening of the paranoia felt in the upper echelons of power. President Mugabe and his advisors, instead of regarding the Internet as an instrument of knowledge and freedom, see it as a tool of “imperialists”.

Speaking at a conference on the information super-highway in Geneva last year, Mugabe described the Internet as a tool used by “a few countries… in quest of global dominance and hegemony”.

Only China, North Korea, Burma and Cuba, as far as I know, restrict Internet access. Most governments sensibly regard it as undesirable to do so except where individuals have broken the law, for instance regarding child pornography. But I can understand the authorities here seeing it as a dangerous ally of the democratic forces. It is already an offence in Zimbabwe to engender hostility towards the president. That, we argue, unfairly protects Mugabe from legitimate criticism when he is at the centre of national debate.

Zimbabweans use the Internet to communicate with each other both at home and in the diaspora. Websites abound providing news and views that are accessed by thousands of people every day. This newspaper was the first to go online in 1996. A significant proportion of our readers access our pages via the Internet and we can receive detailed breakdowns of how many people, and where, are looking at specific pages.

But it is not so much newspapers that government – or its wholly owned telecoms company – is seeking to regulate by its latest move. It is the websites and mailings of Zimbabweans in the democratic movement who are telling the real “Zimbabwean story”. The authorities have made no secret, for instance, of their desire to locate the people behind Zvakwana, a popular site that advances democratic ideas and reports on the activities of the civic sector.

In forcing ISPs to provide details of mailings, the authorities are attemptinto circumvent a Supreme Court ruling in March which struck down clauses in the Post and Telecommunications Services Act (Potsa) that authorised the state to give orders to intercept postal articles and messages.

The Law Society of Zimbabwe had in 2003 sought a ruling on the constitutionality of the provisions. In their judgement the Chief Justice and his colleagues, after nearly a year of deliberation, decided that the sections of Potsa that authorised such interceptions were null and void because they interfered with the right to privacy.

Zispa has asked Tel*One to clarify its request which is currently couched in woolly terms. (What for instance is “anti-national”: Zanu PF’s depredations or democratic discourse?) ISPs have said they are prepared to cooperate with authorities in investigations into such legitimate concerns as terrorism or where a specific crime has been committed. But they would quickly forfeit the confidence of their clients if they became snoops for the government which, despite its boasts of political mastery, appears more insecure by the day.

Why should the onus of monitoring e-mails be placed on ISPs who in any case do not have the capacity or resources to do so? Requirements regarding the enforcement of “cyberlaws” are poorly thought out. There is no international agreement on regulation of copyright. The latest David Bowie release, for instance, can be legally downloaded. Many other MP3 files can’t.

Because of zero public confidence in the state broadcaster, Internet usage in Zimbabwe is relatively high. There were as many as 100 000 registered users in 2002. There will be a lot more today.

Attempts to clamp down on ISPs in the hope of containing dissent can be linked to the bid by officials in the Information department of the Office of the President to cultivate alliances with state media outlets in the region and thus lessen dependence on Western sources. We saw a result of that policy this week with a glowing account of Swapo’s choice of candidate to succeed Sam Nujoma as president of Namibia. There was much talk of “safe hands”. We can expect more of this sunshine journalism in the future.

Which is why people will turn to the Internet and to Zimbabwe-focused broadcasters overseas. Zimbabweans are hungry for news. And they are fed up with being told what wonderful leaders they have when living standards have plunged to pre-1975 levels.

If their experience on the ground does not match the claims being made by their leaders and their captive press a credibility gap is bound to emerge. No amount of panel-beating and Pollyanna perspectives can satisfy that desire for information that is accurate and timely.

Dinosaur regimes which believe they can extend their tenure on power by muzzling news outlets like the Internet or making others such as ISPs do their dirty work of policing political messages are bound to fail. News can no longer be so easily regulated.

That is one of the admittedly problematic facts of the world we live in. And the sooner this government comes to terms with it the better.

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