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Govt to spy on phones, e-mails

Clemence Manyukwe

IN yet another serious assault on civil liberties, government has drafted a Bill to pry into telephone and e-mail messages and to compel service providers to install equipment to help the state intercept private communications.

The propos

ed law, the Interception of Communications Bill, 2006, should be gazetted today and is set to be fast-tracked through parliament.

The Bill reverses a Supreme Court ruling in 2004 which declared unconstitutional Sections 98 and 103 of the Posts and Telecommunications (PTC) Act because they violated Section 20 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe.

The full bench of the Supreme Court upheld contentions by the Law Society of Zimbabwe that the presidential powers provided for in the Act to intercept mail, telephone calls, e-mail and any other form of communication were unconstitutional.

Section 20 of the constitution provides for freedom of expression, freedom to receive and impart ideas and freedom from interference with one’s correspondence.

However, the Bill restores the provisions that were ruled unconstitutional. It seeks to empower the chief of defence intelligence, the director-general of the Central Intelligence Organisation, the Commissioner of Police and the Commissioner General of the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to intercept telephonic messages passed through fixed lines, cellular phones and the Internet.

The Bill also empowers state agencies to open mail passing through the post and through licensed courier service providers.

It authorises the Minister of Transport and Communications to issue a warrant to state functionaries to order the interception of information if there are “reasonable grounds for the minister to think that an offence has been committed or that there is a threat to safety or national security of the country”.

If passed into law, government will use it to set up a telecommunications agency called the Monitoring (and) Interception of Communications Centre from where spy units will operate facilities to pry into messages from both fixed and mobile phones. Sources yesterday said government had already ordered equipment to be installed at monitoring centres in Harare and Bulawayo.

The Bill says operators of telecommunication services will be compelled to install software and hardware to enable them to intercept and store information as directed by the state. The service providers will also be asked to link their message monitoring equipment to the government agency.  Such equipment should be able to render “real time, full time monitoring facilities for the interception of communication”.

The Bill says the process of interception should be such that “neither the interception target nor any other unauthorised person is aware of any changes made to fulfill the interception order”.

The Bill says service providers would be compensated for information assistance rendered to the agency in monitoring information. Over and above this, the service providers will under the proposed law be compelled to keep personal information on clients and provide it to the state if asked to do so.

Failure by service providers to, among other issues, install the requisite software and hardware to intercept messages and transmit them to the government agency will attract a fine and/or imprisonment of up to three years.

The law also empowers state security agencies and Zimra to intercept and open mail which they believe contains information that can be used in the commission of an offence or which can be used as evidence. The information intercepted can be used as evidence in a court of law.

The proposed law comes almost two years after President Mugabe during the official opening of the fifth session of the fifth Parliament of Zimbabwe on July 20 2004 spoke of a “security of communications Bill meant to bolster the security of our nation”.

The draconian piece of law is part of a raft of repressive legislation passed by government to curtail freedom of information. Included in this regime is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act.

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