CPJ alarmed by bill to intercept communications

New York, May 30, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists is alarmed by a bill before Zimbabwe’s parliament that would give the government free rein to monitor telephone calls, letters and electronic mail in the name of national security and crime prevention. Media and civil society groups say the Interception of Communications Bill is a further attempt to clamp down on government critics, including journalists.

“The government is seeking sweeping powers to spy on private citizens without judicial oversight,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “This bill poses a grave threat to journalists and their sources, who are already subject to a battery of repressive laws. We strongly urge Zimbabwe’s parliament to throw it out.”

The bill, which appeared in the Government Gazette on May 26, seeks to establish a communications monitoring center. It would empower the Minister of Transport and Communications to authorize interceptions where there are reasonable grounds to believe that, “a serious offence has been or is being or probably will be committed, or there is threat to safety or national security of the country.”

Zimbabwe’s deputy minister of information Bright Matonga told the United Nations news agency IRIN at the end of April that the bill was “born out of realization that the Internet has been used to destroy the image of Zimbabwe and that this was made possible by the lack of regulation in cyber-communication.”

The Internet is one of the few means of free expression left in Zimbabwe, where the government has used repressive laws to close newspapers and detain journalists, dozens of whom have fled into exile. Zimbabwe has no private radio and no independent daily newspaper since the Daily News was shut down in September 2003.

Media lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa, who received a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2005, said the Interception of Communications Bill was so loosely worded that that it could be used across the board against journalists, defenders of human rights, and anyone the government perceived as a threat. She told CPJ that local lawyers intend to challenge it on constitutional grounds if it is passed into law. Although there is widespread concern that the independence of the courts has been undermined in recent years, lawyers have had some success in challenging repressive laws, especially in the lower courts. Zimbabwe’s parliament is heavily dominated by President Robert Mugabe’s ruling ZANU-PF party.