CPJ concerned by Zimbabwe’s sweeping surveillance law

New York, August 8, 2007—A sweeping surveillance law ratified Friday in Zimbabwe will target “imperialist-sponsored journalists with hidden agendas” the country’s information minister told CPJ. Sikhanyiso Ndlovu described the law as intending “to protect the president, a minister, or any citizen from harm.”

The Interception of Communications Act will allow authorities to intercept all phone, Internet, and mail communications, and will establish a state monitoring center and require telecommunications providers to install systems “supporting lawful interceptions at all times,” according to the Media Institute of Southern Africa.

Independent journalists say the law is intended to close a loophole in an already oppressive reporting environment. As Zimbabwe has become more restrictive of the media, a greater number of Zimbabwean journalists send their reports to international media outlets and online publications based outside the country. The lawful interception of communications could expose investigative reporters and create a climate of fear, said Zimbabwe Union of Journalists President Matthew Takaona.

“This surveillance law further cuts Zimbabwe off from the world and creates an even more oppressive environment than ever for the press,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “The international community needs to be aware that Zimbabwe is attempting to suppress any remaining press freedom in its country. Urgent action is required.”

While the law troubles reporters at SW Radio Africa, a UK-based independent broadcaster founded in December 2001 by uprooted Zimbabwean journalists, it would not deter the station, manager Gerry Jackson told CPJ. The broadcaster offers news headlines via SMS to a growing audience of about 5,000 mobile phone users in Zimbabwe, she said. The station also circulates transcripts of interviews via e-mail to the Zimbabwean diaspora.

In June 2006, the station reported that its medium-wave broadcasts into Zimbabwe had been jammed. There had been a similar scrambling of its short-wave broadcasts in 2005. The government denied that it had interfered, but in February it admitted to jamming Washington-based Studio 7, produced by Voice of America and staffed by uprooted Zimbabwean journalists. “We cannot allow foreigners to invade our airwaves without our authority,” the Media Institute of Southern Africa quoted Deputy Minister of Information and Publicity Bright Matonga as saying.

The law also threatens to undermine local journalists who clandestinely report for independent Internet-based publications, Takaona said. Several Internet news sites have flourished in recent years as alternative sources of information in response to the government’s strict accreditation regime. Under the 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, journalists can already be sentenced for up to two years in prison for practicing journalism without a license.

A journalist of South Africa-based Zimbabwean news Web site ZimOnline told CPJ the measures have been designed to create fear. ZimOnline reporters in Zimbabwe use e-mail pseudonyms to file stories and conceal their identities when calling government officials for comments, he said.

Local rights group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights is considering challenging the legislation in court, acting director Irene Petras told CPJ. Zimbabwe’s Supreme Court had previously ruled unconstitutional similar legislation granting the government sweeping powers to monitor communications that threaten national security when it struck down in 2004 the Posts and Telecommunications Act, according to news reports.