HomeOpinion & AnalysisWe do not need a licence to speak

We do not need a licence to speak

The creation of the ominously named Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation ministry in the aftermath of a Cabinet reshuffle by President Robert Mugabe on October 9 has reignited debate on how best new and social media can be regulated.

But more tellingly, it exposes government’s misconstrued notion of what cyber security actually entails.

The internet is social media and social media is the internet.

Social media is just but a part of a broader cyber space that has overtaken the convectional offline spaces of our lives.

As such, any discourse on cyber security does not and should not be confined to the social media space.

Within the same context, it is important to also note that this space is still growing in Zimbabwe, as our government is yet to fully embrace new technologies in their operations and most of the internet use in the country is largely on social media, with Whatsapp being the most common.

That this space should be regulated is never in question. Cyber threats are real, whether one considers the need to protect the social, economic and personal safety and security of citizens against crimes occasioned through the use of computers and related tools and gadgets.

The government of Zimbabwe is already in the process of considering legislation to regulate the cyber space, with reports that the Cyber Crimes and Cyber Security Bill — as developed through a consultative process led by the Ministry of Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), Postal and Courier Services — is at Cabinet stage.

What this means is that, in terms of the law-making process in Zimbabwe, the Bill is almost at the final stages of becoming law, considering that post cabinet approval the Bill will only be subjected to being rubber-stamped by Parliament, although there could still be slight changes.

There are other regional and international processes that Zimbabwe is party to in developing legislation in this complex area, which keeps evolving and the question of ensuring cyber security through law is certainly not a new phenomena. For instance, Zimbabwe took part in the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) processes that sought to establish a regional framework for regulating the cyberspace.

Supa Mandiwanzira, the ICT minister has put it on record that government intends to introduce the cyber crime and cyber security law before next year’s elections — an indication that the process has been gathering momentum lately.

Hence, on the basis of the above considerations and developments in the area of cyber regulation in Zimbabwe, the appointment of former Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa as the first minister of this newly-established ministry is at best an unnecessary duplication and at worst, a way in which to make the minister redundant.

In fact, there are already three, if not four, ministries regulating the cyber space. On one hand, the ICT ministry is spearheading the formulation of three laws that seek to regulate the media, with some of the provisions administered by the State Security ministry and under the President’s Office.

The Information, Media and Broadcasting Services ministry administers the Broadcasting Services Act and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, both of which have effect on the cyber space.

There is also the Home Affairs ministry that supersedes the administration of the Criminal law (Codification and Reform) Act where the current cyber legislative framework is obtained.

As such, it will be interesting to note exactly what Chinamasa’s ministry terms of reference are outside the obvious political roles of issuing threats — fake, real and imagined — against social media users.

As any politically-conscious observer would note, the cabinet reshuffle was merely for Mugabe to deal with the long-standing succession issue and to a lesser extent prepare for next year’s elections.

Thus, those making a mockery of Chinamasa’s new role in this established ministry are in some sense justified as by all intents and purposes, this is a demotion from managing the national purse to virtually roaming in the wilderness.

Admittedly, the fears among citizens, journalists, media and civil society organisations are legitimate, especially when read against statements and policy pronouncements by high-ranking government officials, including Chinamasa himself, that have a chilling effect on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression and access to information.

Media civil society organisations and watchdog groups will keenly monitor the end result of these threats and implement appropriate interventions, especially as we draw closer to the holding of the elections.

But for the moment, at least if we are to go by what presidential spokesperson George Charamba said of this ministry, it seems Chinamasa’s role will be confined to issuing more of these threats or at worst, to give more legal gravitas to already developed cyber legislation, something he still could have done as a member of the cabinet.

In explaining the roles of the new ministry, Charamba said it aimed at protecting the nation from cyber threats posed by the abuse of social media, something that security ministries address.

Without making reference to the ongoing law development process as spearheaded by the ICT ministry, Charamba said that the ministry needs to lead a law development process to ensure cyber security.

There is certainly no basis outside political reasons to introduce a fourth ministry to regulate just about half or so of the country’s population with access to the internet, especially on the premise of what they communicate, interpersonally or to a mass audience using various online platforms.

The rights to freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information are expressly guaranteed in the Constitution and no amount of ministries and/or government agencies can withdraw those rights from citizens. We do not need a licence to speak!

l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently serving as the programmes manager of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on njnya2@gmail.com or +263 772 501 557

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