By Dumisani Ndlela
Human rights defenders and critics are worried that authoritarianism is creeping into every facet of social and political life in Zimbabwe, with a clampdown on free expression on social media platforms, seen by government as facilitating mobilisation of protests and dissent.
Journalists, human rights activists, opposition politicians and other government critics feel particularly vulnerable and targeted by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration, which had promised to usher in a new era of democracy under the so-called new dispensation.
Zimbabweans, unable to express themselves through protests, have resorted to social media platforms to express their revulsion and anger at government and its policies.
But they have courted the ire of the establishment, which has described online criticism as subversive and undermining the national interest.
While the arrest of more citizens expressing themselves through social media platforms has been a source of great worry to pro-democracy activists, government has argued that it has a legitimate right to defend the national interest, which it considers to be under threat from seditious elements.
Zimbabwe’s military recently came out strongly in favour of military-led surveillance, arguing civilian communication on social media was posing “a dangerous threat to our national security”.
An army commander warned that the army would spy on citizens’ online communication, saying social media was being used for misinformation.
In the past few months, the country has witnessed a clampdown on dissent, with the arrest of several civilians, human rights activists and journalists expressing themselves online.
Era of the state
Presidential spokesman George Charamba has warned of the emergence of the “era of the state”.
“Let’s remind each other: One Egyptian journalist working for Al Jazeera has been languishing in jail for over 1 000 days.
“Meanwhile even Al Jazeera’s perfunctory campaign for him has grown fatigued.
“The West is dead silent, and won’t care a hoot,” Charamba said, in a tweet just days after journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested for allegedly inciting public violence through social media posts.
“But the message has been driven home: You do not tamper with Egyptian institutions of state in the name of media freedom or that of global news networks hoping it can’t!! It can, more than a thousand times over!!! Era of the State!” said Charamba.
Chin’ono, alongside Jacob Ngarivhume, the architect of the foiled July 31 anti-corruption protests government said were meant to unseat a constitutionally elected government, went on to be denied bail by both the magistrates court and the High Court. They were only granted bail on the fourth attempt last week after more than 40 days in prison.
Chin’ono is now afflicted by fever, headache and lack of appetite.
Opposition leader Job Sikhala, who had been in hiding after police indicated they wanted him for the same offence, later got arrested and on his appearance in court, human rights groups posted videos of his supporters getting bashed by the police for agitating for his release.
This infuriated government supporters, who alleged the videos had cut-out scenes in which the supporters acted provocatively against the police.
Charamba reacted angrily at what he said was an appalling “level of propaganda deceit”.
“The good thing is there is a clear resolve to end this nonsense once and for all,” he warned.
“This will never happen again in this country.
“We shall be a law-and-order people, whoever thinks they can stand behind goons.
“This will disappear this year,” he said, mixing English and the vernacular Shona language.
He later warned in a separate tweet that there was a “new mould of national politics, which ensures we loyally pursue dissent while etching clear markers between electoral and post-electoral understanding between players across the political divide”.
The ruling party and government apparently believe the West has a hand in public agitation against Mnangagwa’s government, which emerged from a military-assisted takeover of power from the now-late Robert Mugabe in November 2017.
Human rights defenders and critics of the government have been described as quislings of the West, particularly the US government.
Zimbabwe has been growing its alliance with China, whose government and telecommunication companies are at the centre of Zimbabwe’s information and communication technology revolution.
While the US and the European Union have condemned Zimbabwe’s recent clampdown on free expression and the arrest of civilians, activists and opposition politicians, the Chinese have refused to be judgemental.
“No country is perfect,” said Chinese ambassador Guo Shaochun.
“No country knows Zimbabwe better than Zimbabwe(ans).
“Zim doesn’t need other countries to teach it to do this or to do that. Zim needs real partners and real help without any political conditions.”
There are fears Zimbabwe may be taking a cue from Chinese authorities, who have tightened their grip on the Chinese society, with increasing control of the media and freedom of expression as well as increased repression by using modern technologies.
Two years ago, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, told the National People’s Congress that China was offering the world a new political party system.
Apparently, China has been promoting a one-party system.
The ruling party’s leadership have had several visits to the Chinese Communist Party to learn and understand its system.
Zimbabwe’s quest to grow its ICT infrastructure is currently being supported by Huawei Technology, a Chinese telecommunications giant.
Huawei is the subject of a bitter fallout between China and the US, which banned its companies from using Huawei networking equipment in 2012.
The company was added to the US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security Entity List in May 2019, following an executive order from President Donald Trump.
This effectively banned Huawei from US communications networks.
A year later, Trump extended the order until 2021.
The US has alleged that Huawei has allowed the Chinese government to use its equipment to spy on other countries and companies.
The US has been piling pressure on allies not to award Huawei tenders for their next-generation 5G wireless networks.
Last year, the UK capitulated and banned Huawei from its 5G infrastructure.
Huawei’s gear will be removed from the infrastructure by 2027.
The company has an edge over its rivals to build Zimbabwe’s smart cities, which allow monitoring of citizens through strategically placed sensors around urban settings.
Huawei has already constructed more than 200 smart cities and is stepping up its push for more projects.
The state already has capacity to snoop into private communication on mobile and fixed line networks.
An alleged leak on social media of Joint Operations Command minutes of a meeting in 2013 suggests that the state machinery has equipment, installed with the support of the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe and Zimbabwe National Roads Administration, to counter unfavourable feeds from individuals and institutions.
The authenticity of the document could not be independently verified by this writer.
Facial recognition cameras for a mass surveillance system are therefore the next frontier in the government’s quest for a comprehensive spying network.
Government signed strategic agreements with Chinese AI firms, Cloudwalk Technologies and HikVision, in 2018 for cooperation on the mass facial recognition project.
The companies donated facial recognition cameras with deep learning capacity to government to allow it to harvest data to develop its algorithms for black faces.
In Zimbabwe, Huawei last year completed a fibre optic project for state-owned TelOne linking Harare and Bulawayo, the country’s two major cities, with South Africa.
The project was funded by China Exim Bank, currently bankrolling a network expansion project also being undertaken by Huawei for mobile telecommunications network, NetOne.
The infrastructure will support a US$140 million, six-storey Parliament currently under construction in the proposed new capital city in Mount Hampden.
It is being funded wholly by the Chinese government as a donation and is part of the ambitious Smart Cities project.
The state plans to relocate some of its organs, including the judiciary and executive branches, to the site, where a State House and official residences for the speaker of the House of Assembly and president of the Senate will also be constructed.
But the problem, inevitably, will be for government to overcome cynicism about its use of surveillance technology to combat crime and terrorism.
Opposition activists and civil society leaders have pointed out that existing snooping technology has been abused to target human rights activists and critics.
A Wall Street Journal investigation last year found that Huawei employees helped African governments spy on political opponents by using cell data to track their location and intercepting encrypted communications and social media.
There was no evidence, however, that Huawei’s executives were aware of or approved the activities.
According to a research report by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum titled Communications & Political Intelligence Surveillance on Human Rights Defenders in Zimbabwe, military and other state security personnel were to receive Chinese training on “equipment built by technology giant Huawei to eavesdrop on diplomatic, political, business and private communications”.
Although TelOne and the Harare City Council have embarked on a safe city project where cameras are being deployed on the streets to monitor human and vehicular traffic in the capital, indications are that state security services are working on a separate surveillance system that could involve Huawei.
This publication reported in June that consultants from Huawei had advised government on digitalising the national registration system for birth and identity documents to ensure that citizens’ details, such as their names, gender, dates of birth, identification numbers and photos, could be linked a proposed national data centre that would feed the surveillance system.
The Chinese telecoms giant also helped construct two data centres for the state-owned TelOne. The two centres will be linked to the national data centre.
With most of the infrastructure bankrolled by cheap, concessionary funding from the Chinese government, Huawei’s influence will become even deep-rooted.
l Dumisani Ndlela is a journalist researching on digital surveillance with support from the Media Policy & Democracy Project jointly run by the University of Johannesburg and Unisa.