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Zimbabwe zeroes in on social media

A newly created Department of Cyber Security in Zimbabwe is supposed to protect state interests and clamp down on social media abuse, but has stoked fears it could lead to an attack on freedom of speech. In a cabinet reshuffle last week Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe announced the formation of the Ministry of Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation. Appointed to the position was outgoing finance minister Patrick Chinamasa. A Mugabe spokesperson stated that Chinamasa's mandate was to catch 'rats' using social media, and was to follow in the footsteps of countries that had had success in clamping down on social media, namely Russia and China. The announcement made a huge splash on social media. Chinamasa, a well-known figure in Zimbabwe, quickly became fodder for dozens of memes and jokes, centred around the new 'minister of WhatsApp’.

However, the announcement has also raised worries that the government is clamping down on social media ahead of next year's elections. Last month, then minister of home affairs Ignatius Chombo released a statement claiming that “a politically coordinated criminal agenda” was responsible for food shortages and panics in Zimbabwe's currency markets. “Government is closely monitoring the press and social media reports in question ... with a view to taking decisive action,” the statement read. The cabinet reshuffle saw Chombo moved to the Department of Finance, replacing Chinamasa. In recent years Zimbabwe has seen a number of large-scale protests take place, organised primarily through social media. Last year pastor Evan Mawarire organised Zimbabwe's largest protest in a decade by circulating videos of himself draped in the nation's flag on Twitter and WhatsApp with the hashtag #ThisFlag. Mawarire was arrested in September and faces charges of subverting the Zimbabwean government.

But more than fomenting organised protests, social media users have singled out the Zimbabwean president personally on a number of occasions. In February 2015 Mugabe trended after he fell in public, and his bodyguards attempted to force photographers to delete their images of the accident. They didn't succeed and the incidence became an online sensation. Then as recently as September 2017 Mugabe trended again, this time for falling asleep during United States President Donald Trump's address to the United Nations General Assembly.

Opposition parties have also condemned the formation of the ministry. Long-time opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, president of the Movement for Democratic Change, said of the ministry “Mugabe loathes any form of public protest against his corrupt and incompetent regime. He will do whatever it takes to control and muzzle social media in order to suppress public discontent against his regime.” In his new role Chinamasa, a lawyer, is expected to finalise Zimbabwe's new Computer Crime and Cyber Crime Bill. The bill was introduced last year, and purportedly looks to protect Zimbabwe's citizens from cyberattacks. However, the bill has drawn fire from watchdogs, which argue that it could be used as justification for the Zimbabwean government to infringe on human rights. The implementation of this bill, and the actions of the new ministry have particular regional significance. South Africa is in the process of drafting a similar bill, which ranges in scope from creating 50 new legal offences, to drastically extending the reach of law enforcement and state security to surveil and seize. Speaking on the role of the new ministry in Zimbabwe, presidential spokesperson George Charamba has said that cybersecurity was an issue that would be dealt with in tandem by Zimbabwe and South Africa. “It was also a subject of discussion between the two heads of state of South Africa and Zimbabwe, because we need to evolve a joint strategy to deal with that mischief.”

Jacob Zuma (left) with Robert Mugabe (Right). Photo by Buanews

As recent as the advent of social media has been, many states around the world have already perfected the art of suppressing it. In Russia, regulations require that all internet service providers install hardware provided by the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB. This technology allows Russian officials to access consumer data without warrants. In September, China blocked WhatsApp, and has never even allowed platforms like Facebook, YouTube or Twitter into the country, forcing residents to use alternatives in which the state is heavily involved. In Zimbabwe, many ministers and government officials are reputed to use Gmail accounts for official use, with many believing that the country could benefit from an overhaul of its cybersecurity. However, given its long history of interfering with freedom of speech, it remains to be seen whether Zimbabwe's new ministry will protect citizens, or hinder people's right to criticise their ruling party.

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