Zimbabwe’s Speedy Social Media Law Is Africa’s Latest Internet Censorship Plot

By  |  August 31, 2020

A cyber bill that seeks to punish peddlers of falsehood on social media could become law as soon as October this year in Zimbabwe. That’s because Zimbabwe is fast-tracking the adoption of a divisive new law which critics believe is more about muffling dissent than curbing falsehood.

As part of the provisions in this new piece of legislation, individuals found guilty of spreading false information via social media face a jail term of up to five years, or a fine, or both.

Having made little progress since the ousting of its long-standing president, the late Robert Mugabe, the administration of current leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has faced criticism for what is being described as rampant public sector corruption, gross human rights violations, and failure to stabilize a flailing economy.

Much of the dissent has been propagated online, through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook which also served as the launchpads for the planned July 31 protests that were ultimately foiled by security agents.

President Mnangagwa has long condemned what he dubs unjustified online attacks from enemies of state whose purpose is to destabilize the country and effect a regime change.

The President’s position is that the gory images of human rights violations that sparked the viral #ZimbabweLivesMatter campaign and the thwarted July 31 demonstrations are all falsehoods aimed at causing rifts and throwing the country into disarray.

More social media problems

In a bid to clip the wings of social media, Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, has confirmed that the government is speeding up the passage in Parliament of the Cyber and Patriotic bills, as a way of dealing with delinquents.

“We have the bill but we have been affected by Covid-19 (in passing it),” Ziyambi told Daily News.

“There is a need to speed up the passing of this bill which is one of our priority bills. What we are going to do is that when we resume sitting next week, we will see if we can cover a lot of ground on it. We are hopeful that we can complete it before the end of October.”

But the view from rights groups is that the legislation is just another way through which the government aims to suppress dissent, especially with the amplification of allegations of “government-sponsored human rights violations” in the country.

They maintain that activists who are about holding the government to account are being targeted, tortured, and silenced. And muffling social media would only serve the purpose of hiding the misdeeds.

As it is, though, Zimbabwe is on track to ‘red-taping’ social media but it won’t be the first time the country, and indeed, many other African nations, have gone down that road.

African governments have little love for online media

There are now up to 525 million internet users in Africa and the number of people actively using social media in Africa stands at 216 million with platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube among the most dominant.

Since the year 2010 when social media played a pivotal role in mobilizing the public and ultimately toppling strongmen like former Egyptian leader, the late Hosni Mubarak, social media has morphed from a fun item to a conduit for political capital.

That’s especially true in Africa where a 2016 report suggested that political discourse on Twitter is on the rise in Africa, with Africans having a higher rate of political tweets than people in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Over the last decade, African governments have resorted to adopting stifling forms of censorship to limit free speech and curb people’s ability to organize and mobilize via online platforms.

In the last few years, across many African nations, there has been a recurrence of internet shutdowns, website takedowns, social media/internet taxes, targeted social media applications shutdowns, surveillance of digital communications, online propaganda, and even the detention of online critics.

Between 2016 and 2019, the governments of several African countries shut down the internet for political reasons. Sudan, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, and the Republic of Benin are some of the more prominent examples from last year.

Cutting the internet off doesn’t come cheap. It has been reported that the global cost of government-motivated Internet shutdowns was about USD 8.05 Bn in 2019, with sub-Saharan Africa alone accounting for USD 2.16 Bn.

A report by US-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House, even suggests that many Africans are unknowingly under the surveillance of their own states via social media platforms.

On its part, Zimbabwe shuttered the internet for a few days in January 2019. The country has also passed laws that enable them to monitor their citizens and follow their behavior online.

Zimbabwe also has what is known as the Interception of Communications Act, which essentially gives the government the power to intercept and carry out surveillance on the devices of persons of groups of interest. And now it’s set to put red tape on social media usage.

On February 13, Ethiopia passed a law that aims to curb hate speech and disinformation online. Internet users and platform operators who violate the new rules face up to three years of imprisonment and a fine of up to USD 3 K. Ethiopia also has a history laden with numerous internet shutdowns.

Shortly after the first presentation of Germany’s Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG), which was intended to combat hate crime on the internet (and has become something of a blueprint for internet censorship), the Kenyan parliament passed a law against hate speech online.

Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, saw its Senate put forward a strict Social Media Bill in 2019 but it got quite the pushback.

In countries such as Uganda, Benin, Tanzania, and Zambia, there are now laws in place which impose daily taxes on social media and other over-the-top (OTT) services. In Uganda, for instance, citizens have to pay USD 0.05 per day to access Facebook, Twitter, or WhatsApp as a law adopted in 2018.

Other African nations like Egypt, Rwanda, Morocco, Malawi, DR Congo, and Cameroon are known to have various forms of internet censorship in place.

Such legislations are often put forward with the stated intention of curbing the spread of potentially damaging information and punishing the peddlers of falsehood.

However, the concern from rights groups and critics is that it’s more about taking away of freedom of expression, keeping the authorities beyond probing in an unreliable justice system, fomenting fear, and doling out ‘legalised injustices’ to people perceived to be enemies of state just because they don’t agree with the way the State is being run.

Featured Image Courtesy: The Borgen Project

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