The Sunday News
Lincoln Towindo, Harare Bureau
THE Government will not interfere with Internet connectivity or sanction illicit monitoring of citizens’ private communication over the election period, a Cabinet Minister has said.
In line with Government’s new approach of promoting individual freedoms, the use of Internet will be promoted to facilitate communication.
Industry regulator, Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) will soon begin an aggressive public awareness programme to promote responsible use of Internet-based communication platforms, including social media.
Internet shutdowns have been used in several jurisdictions as governments grappled with the rising tide of fake news.
However, Information Communication Technology (ICT) and Cyber Security Minister Cde Supa Mandiwanzira told our Harare Bureau last week that Government does not have an appetite to interfere with social media freedoms.
Section 61 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression.
He said President Mnangagwa, who is an active participant on social media, is serious about promoting individual freedoms.
He, however, cautioned against fake news and stories that needlessly cause alarm and despondency, especially on the new media platforms.
“We have no intention to curtail Internet freedom or social media freedoms simply because there is an election. The Government values the various platforms that Zimbabweans use to share ideas and express their opinions and therefore, don’t expect us to do anything that undermines those platforms,” said Cde Mandiwanzira.
“However, we are encouraging people to use those platforms responsibly. Avoid spreading fake news and causing unnecessary grief and pain to other people. The President is very serious about promoting individual freedoms and is not in any way prepared to curtail people’s access to the Internet during and after the election period.
“The President himself is an active participant on social media, including Facebook and Twitter, where he personally engages with citizens and updates them on Government programmes. We see no need to curtail the freedoms that come with Internet access. We are in fact promoting the use of technology as a means of facilitating development.
“Our ministry is working hard to ensure that every citizen can have access to the Internet in future,” he said.
President Mnangagwa routinely uses social media to interact with Zimbabweans from around the world.
As of yesterday, he had over 320 000 followers on Facebook and 130 000 followers on Twitter.
He has also been actively encouraging Zanu-PF’s supporters to aggressively promote the party’s policies on social media. Last week, Potraz director-general Dr Gift Kallisto Machengete told our Harare Bureau that the regulator’s primary role is to raise awareness on responsible use of new technologies.
“Election time is a volatile period in which abuse of the Internet and social media is highly likely,” said Dr Machengete.
“Potraz’s primary role during this period is to continuously raise awareness and educate consumers through various platforms on the importance of responsible use of the Internet and social media. Potraz will also intensify its collaboration with law enforcement agencies, especially the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), in facilitating prosecution of offences under Section 88 of the Postal and Telecommunications Act (Chapter 12:05) in relation to abuse of telephony, which includes the Internet and, by extension, the social media.
“Currently, the authority is conducting road shows interfacing with consumers, teaching them about their rights, and discouraging them from abusing social media. We are also carrying out consumer education and awareness campaigns to sensitise subscribers on their obligations in terms of responsible use of social media.
“The long-term plan, however, is to try and catch them young through our Child Online Protection Framework and intervene from kindergarten level, to inculcate the culture of responsible use of the cyber space at that level, right through to tertiary level.”
Government is presently crafting a legal instrument to regulate the abuse of the Internet, particularly social media, and promote indigenous social online applications and locally developed social media platforms.
Other African countries have similar laws to regulate the use of social media platforms. Last month, Kenya enacted a law criminalising cybercrimes such as fake news, cyber-bullying and cyber-espionage.
The law provides for fines and prison sentences for 17 listed offences, including child pornography, unauthorised access, illegal devices and computer forgery.