He accused detractors of resorting to “social media platforms to subvert security forces in pursuit of their own hidden agendas …”
Chimonyo, who encouraged the senior army officers to “help the men and women under your command to guard against such threats,” warned that “anyone working on a networked computer is under threat of cybercrime, hacking and subversion”.
Elastic view of subversion
Apparently, government has in the past used subversion to criminalise dissent and silence critics. For example, MDC-A legislator Joanna Mamombe (MDC Alliance) is currently facing a charge of subverting a constitutionally-elected government after being accused by the State of calling the government “authoritarian” in remarks posted on Facebook.
Among those who have been accused of subversion are seven activists charged for attending a course on peaceful resistance in the Maldives in 2018, a pastor who has since been acquitted by the courts, three trade union leaders, a human rights activist and two legislators from the opposition MDC-A: Chalton Hwende, the secretary-general and Job Sikhala, the deputy national chairman, whose cases have since been discharged by the courts.
The involvement of the military in the monitoring of alleged subversion, whose definition has been so elastic that criticism of government and its policies has resulted in the arrest of several citizens, is surely worrying.
United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, said in a report, following his visit to Zimbabwe in September last year, that he had “perceived that the use of military forces has a profound negative impact, including in the minds of the population, who fear these forces are not adequately trained to handle demonstrations”.
“On this point, I would like to stress that the involvement of the military in the managing of assemblies contradicts the Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa, as they provide that military forces must only be used in exceptional circumstances and only if absolutely necessary,” he said.
During the November 2017 protests that forced the now late former President Robert Mugabe out of power, the military was seen as a liberator, encouraging the population to assert its rights through peaceful protests.
This was seen as heralding a new era under the leadership of Mnangagwa, a former deputy who escaped briefly from Zimbabwe after being sacked by Mugabe. He was brought back by former army general Constantino Chiwenga to lead the country following the coup.
But soon, it became clear the weather had not changed under his rule and that the army was part of the problem.
Increasing agitation against the government was met with brutal force. Government deployed the army in the capital after police allegedly failed to subdue demonstrators who claimed the August 2018 historic election had been rigged. Six people died and several were injured.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission strongly condemned the troops’ deployment, saying this had led “to loss of life and serious bodily injuries and other human rights violations”.
Soldiers were again deployed after nationwide protests broke out following a sharp increase in the price of fuel in January 2019.
In its World Report 2020, Human Rights Watch said security forces responded with lethal force, killing at least 17 people, raping at least 17 women, shooting and injuring 81 people, and arresting over 1 000 suspected protesters during door-to-door raids.
“In the months that followed, several civil society activists, political opposition leaders, and other critics of the government were arbitrarily arrested, abducted, beaten or tortured.
Little to no efforts were made to bring those responsible for the abuses to justice,” said Human Rights Watch.
Zimbabweans have always feared State security agents, including the army, whose role in the political and domestic affairs of the country has increased since the coup of 2017. Soldiers have always monitored them either over the phone, online or physically.
The pronouncement by Chimonyo clearly shows that cyber security has now become important to national security, and could result in increased investment in technologies for surveillance and suppression of dissent in cyberspace.
State security agencies have been reportedly privately acquiring spying hardware and software, including IMSI Catchers, which have been used to track citizens’ movements and mobile phone usages. This is over and above the fact that, in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, all mobile telecommunications firms have put in place infrastructure that enables the interception and storage of call-related information. The infrastructure enables network operators to link their mobile centres with authorities, who connect their own equipment to the system to spy on suspects.
Police Deputy Commissioner-General Learn Ncube last year told officers at a rebranding course that they had received the latest surveillance equipment from government, but declined to disclose the nature of the devices. Indeed, military and State surveillance of citizens can be so secretive that even government bureaucrats, Cabinet ministers and legislators are often kept ignorant about the capacity of their spying gadgets.
Resorting to social media
To circumvent monitoring, Zimbabweans have resorted to social media platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter for communication. Well over five million Zimbabweans use WhatsApp for communication, according to the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (Potraz). As a result, State security agencies have developed a keen interest in social media platforms.
In October last year, Cabinet approved the Cyber Crime, Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill, which government said would be used to combat cybercrime, increase cyber security, protect data in the public interest and deal with revenge pornography.
But a Freedom of the Net report by Freedom House said that the Bill would place restrictions on freedom of expression online if passed into law.
Government last year ordered internet service providers to cut off internet access across the country after riots broke out over fuel price increases.
The shutdown was removed after a court ordered authorities to do so following an application by the Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zimbabwe.
Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi said government had blocked social media platforms “to stop organised crime, organised gatherings that end up in violent demonstrations …”
The order to shut down the internet, said one internet service provider in a message to clients, was issued by the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security through the director-general of the President’s Office.
“We are obliged to act when directed to do so and the matter is beyond our control,’’ the company said.
Bad for democracy
While social media has become a hotchpotch of falsehoods and half-truths, the greater danger to democracy is disinformation, which has largely come in the form of propaganda by the State-controlled media, rather than misinformation, which is false information people may share in the belief that it is true.
Most of it has largely been in the form of pranks and rumours, although at times it has been in the form of outright insults.
Still, this does not warrant the intervention of the military, which may translate to militarisation of domestic law enforcement. This may significantly undermine civil and political rights, particularly the right to freedom of expression and association.
What makes this worrying is that soldiers, as Zanu-PF and government are wont to remind citizens, are trained to kill rather than police civilian affairs.
The Freedom of the Net report has pointed out that Zimbabwe had last year experienced the greatest decline in internet freedom alongside five other countries.
The military and its intelligence institutions are trained for war, and unleashing them on citizens, both online and offline, would engender public distrust of these institutions.
In a country were activism in the form of protests has been crushed, citizens have found a way to vent their anger and express themselves online in the post-coup era. Surveillance of online communication by the military would therefore endanger democracy.