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The Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe and what it means for Africa at large.

Law and Technology for Growth

The Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe and what it means for Africa at large.

AUTHOR: IJIDOLAPO SUCCESS IJIWOYE

By now, I believe most people must have heard the news about the Internet shutdown in Zimbabwe. Coupled with regular shortages of food, fuel and medicine experienced by the people in Zimbabwe, the Government announced that fuel price will be doubled which led to the outbreak of protests. The Government went ahead to order Econet Wireless Zimbabwe, the Country’s largest provider of telecommunications services and internet access, and other service providers, to shut down their services.

Activists across the globe have condemned both the use force against protesters and the internet shutdown as improper ways to respond to the demonstration of economic grievances.

Today, the importance of the Internet in our lives cannot be overemphasized. The internet is more or less the Voice of a person or a people and to order for its shutdown is as symbolic as gagging the people and forcing them to keep shut. As a primary means of communication in these modern times, the role Internet access plays in ensuring people enjoy their fundamental human rights is undoubtedly significant.

In consideration of the aforementioned, this action of the Zimbabwean Government may be said to be in breach of:

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948, which states that:

‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’

This right is also enshrined in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, one which Zimbabwe is signatory to. http://www.achpr.org/instruments/achpr/ratification/

The Internet Shutdown incident is nothing short of the negative impact our Laws and Policies (as instruments for regulating the human behavior and conducts) can have on Technology and Innovation, which are meant to improve our lives if rightly engaged.

In an age whereby the rest of the world is chanting increased Internet access to boost economic development and growth, it is ironical to see Zimbabwe, a Nation which is not in the abundant rain of such progressive economic conditions, shut down their Internet access.

NOW, LET US GET SOME ANSWERS.

What Law(s) empowered the Zimbabwean Government to order the shutdown of Internet in the Country? (What right do they have to order a shutdown of the Internet?)

We must first understand that Zimbabwe is a Democratic Nation and the Rule of Law exists, regardless of its past and current political history. As a country governed by its own rules and laws, the Interception of Communications Act [Chapter 11:20] which was enacted in 2007 is said to have given the Government the power to order and authorize such shutdown, although the Act does not expressly state that the Government has the power to order an Internet shutdown.

As the outcome of a case brought by human rights Lawyers and Journalists, a High Court in Zimbabwe ruled on Monday, January 21, 2019, that the State Security Minister Owen Ncube had no power to shut down the Internet. David Halimana, Lawyer representing the Complainants clarified that only the State President can order such a shutdown.

According to the Interpretation Section of the Act, ‘intercept’ means “intercept” in relation to any communication which is sent—

(a)  by means of a telecommunication system or radio communication system, means to listen to, record, or copy, whether in whole or in part;

(b)  by post, means to read or copy the contents, whether in whole or part.

Many human rights Lawyers have debated and condemned this interception as an infringement on the right of a person to his or her privacy. Imagine if a stranger, even if it is the Government of your country, listening to all your private or personal conversations at any time they choose.

Well a Law is a Law till it is overturned by the Parliament of Zimbabwe which made it in the first place. No matter how redundant or irrelevant it has become, a law remains a law and so is the case of the Interception of Communications Act.

The Act provides that such interception can however only be done either by the person making the communication or with such a person’s consent, or if you have a warrant to intercept. The Act prescribes a level fourteen fine or five years imprisonment (or both) for anyone who intercepts or attempts to intercept without being in the three categories stated above, except it is the postal service or telecommunications provider intercepting for the purpose of ‘provision, installation, maintenance and repair’.

The only thing missing in that section which one would think it is expected to be assumed, is that the Government is an exception to the rules. It implies that the Government oversees it all and can in fact act as it desires in relations to the Interception of Communications. It means the Government simply does not need any Warrant and can do whatever it likes.

One should not even raise the issue of Data Privacy in this circumstance because it is by far of little concern when it is clear from the provisions of the Act that the right to basic privacy in fact does not exist.

What is/are the effect(s) of shutting down Internet access?

The effects spread across all aspects of the Nation’s development. When the Government gives such an order as this, the Government does not only project itself as a primitive and backward government but also a hostile government. In a world whereby Technology is a driver of economic development and growth, Investors greatly consider the level at which Technology is being applied before they commit their funds and/or time to projects, it will be a loss for whichever county shuts down access to Internet. The Investors of today are ‘Impact Investors’, they are not just out to make financial benefits, but also to invest with the intention of generating measurable and beneficial social impact. They deeply understand the impact of a ‘working Government’ and good governance on businesses and development as a whole. It will therefore amount to a loss for a country like Zimbabwe which is audaciously projecting itself as Investor-unfriendly.

Beyond investments, the fate of both the young and old individual entrepreneurs and companies who understand that depending on the Government’s provisions to survive is futile, and have gone ahead to build businesses online, is now in the hands of the Government who have unleashed these adverse circumstances on them, as they are now forced to experience an unwarranted hindrance in running their businesses. It is unfortunate that the System makes a mockery of their efforts.

The purpose for the Interception of Communications Act is still very much unclear and when and how the Government can or should wield its power with respect to this Act is also something that should be made clear in the event of a hopeful review. The Act should not be used as a ‘punishment’ tool as it is currently being perceived as such.

Should any Government even attempt to regulate their Citizens’ access to the Internet?

This issue of if there should be a limit to how the Internet is being used and who should use it has been a hot topic in discussions for years now. But despite the fact that the merits and demerits of using the Internet are innumerable as well as the functional solutions proffered, one clear thing is that the Government should not interfere to an extent of shutting down the Internet as such act of the Government will constitute breach of the people’s right to freedom of expression.

Are there laws restricting Internet Access in other African countries?

The infringement on the right to freedom of opinion and expression is not new to Africa. The legislators make laws that end up harming this right. For instance, in 2018, the Government of Tanzania issued the Tanzania Electronic and Postal Communications and orders all unregistered bloggers to take down their sites and online forums (fora) or face criminal prosecutions. The online platforms such as YouTube Channels were to be registered with the Government and must pay up to $900 for a license. Failure to comply may result in the payment of fine of $2,200, minimum of 12months imprisonment or both. Activists argued that the new rules were a crack down on Internet Users but the Government argued otherwise, stating prevention of cyberbullying, hate speech as some of its reasons.

Also, in Uganda, the Government imposed a tax on the use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter. The Government of Zambia also introduced a levy on internet calls including Skype, WhatsApp calls and Viber. Similar incidents also surfaced in Kenya and South Africa.

What should be done to prevent such incidents or similar from happening in the future? (Africa as a Continent at large)

The shutdown is obviously detrimental to all parties. It is detrimental to all the Stakeholders (the Government, the Citizens, the Service Providers and other Service Users). The craziest of all thoughts would be to imagine a world whereby Internet access is not just democratized in the sense of making it free for all, but for each individual to be able to personally provide that access for him or herself. But even the craziest thought will still not be enough to prevent the shutdown from happening again.

To prevent this sort of incident from occurring in the future, it is strongly advised that all stakeholders should engage in frequent dialogues, create opportunities and platforms to discuss, debate, clarify issues and carry one another along. It is essential for them to come together as often as possible to enable them deliberate on what policies to be made, what innovations are needed to solve which problems, how best to deliver. They must ensure not to ‘intimidate’ one another.

A basic understanding of collaboration and not competition is highly necessary for Stakeholders. It is common in the nature of the people in the Technology space to isolate themselves from the policy-making scene, thereby leaving the making of the laws that regulate their actions to people who may have little or no idea of their peculiar circumstance and who will not have their best interests at heart as a result. The people in the Technology space must therefore ensure that they encourage and foster such meetings and collaborations often. It is also in the best interest of the Government (Policy-makers) if they are willing to encourage and engage in such meetings for the betterment of the economy and society.

If we must grow, if we must win, the LAW must give room for the growth of TECHNOLOGY, and so must TECHNOLOGY help advance the LAW.

 

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