Al Jazeera Journalism Review

Zimbabwe
An online journalist in Zimbabwe works on his computer [AP Photo/Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi]

Will Zimbabwe’s journalists be harmed by new cyber laws? 

Zimbabwe’s Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill aims to protect privacy and guard against child sexual abuse depicted online. But it could also seriously hamper a free press.

 

There is much to celebrate within Zimbabwe’s new Cybersecurity and Data Protection Bill, 2019, now awaiting the President’s consent. The proposed Bill, which is expected to come into force after the President’s approval, aims to consolidate cyber-related offences and provide data protection law for its citizens.

For ordinary citizens, specifically children, it will seek to prosecute people who produce, distribute, procure or produce child pornography. This is a welcome move to address a growing problem for women and children here and follows global standards. The Bill will also criminalise cyberbullying and online harassment. 

On paper, the Bill seems to tick all the right boxes, but there are some other clauses within it which raise concerns, particularly for journalists.

For instance, clause 164C (scroll down to page 31) seeks to outlaw the spread of false information. It states: “Any person who unlawfully and intentionally by means of a computer or information system makes available, broadcasts or distributes data to any other person concerning an identified or identifiable person knowing it to be false with intent to cause psychological or economic harm shall be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine not exceeding level 10 or to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years or to both such fine and such imprisonment.” Under the proposed Bill therefore, the government seeks to criminalise what it classifies as “false information”. The danger is that this could be used to silence those who use online platforms to expose corruption - often within government institutions - a key purpose of journalism.

Instead of rewarding whistleblowers, as is the norm in other parts of the world, they will be penalised, by being put at risk of retribution from perpetrators

 

The government has defended the proposed bill. “The bill is our legislative response to setting the right legal framework upon which all cybersecurity superstructures are to be built,” Dr Jenfan Muswere, the Minister of Information, Communications Technology Postal and Courier Services, said in December 2020.

However, this has done little to allay the fears of journalists. Clause 164C is ambiguous; it does not clarify what is constituted as “false information” nor who defines it. Because of this, members of the media are very concerned that the law could be applied highly selectively, and be used to censor journalists and curtail their freedom of expression.

What if it is the government which misinforms the public, as it did when the Herald, a state-controlled publication, pronounced that Zambia’s President Hichilema “followed President Mnangagwa to his hotel where they held a 30-minute closed door bilateral meeting…”? The Zambian president, however, set the record straight when he tweeted that he had held a meeting with a number of heads of state, not just the leader of Zimbabwe.

In cases like this, how is the law going to be applied, by whom and who will be accountable? In such cases, will the law be applied evenly or it is going to be applied selectively, depending on which side one belongs to? Indeed, how does one apply punitive action to “the government”. 

Silencing whistleblowers

Clause 164C may work to silence whistleblowers, who often rely on social media to reveal corruption. Last year, investigative journalist Mduduzi Mathuthu blew the whistle on corruption involving COVID-19 funds. He reported online that a company, Drax International, had invoiced the government $28 for individual 55disposable masks whose wholesale price was less than $4 from reputable local suppliers.

Another whistleblowing journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono, was arrested last year for allegedly inciting public violence after he also exposed COVID-19 corruption via social media. As it stands, the new Bill could further protect corrupt people including politicians by gagging the press to prevent vital information about corruption from reaching the public. 

Furthermore, Clause 31 of the new Bill could put journalists in acute danger. This clause seeks to regulate “the scope and purpose of the whistleblowing”. Clause 31(3) adds: “The person who is implicated shall be informed as soon as possible of the existence of the report and about the facts which he or she is accused of in order to exercise the rights established in this Act.”

Again, instead of rewarding whistleblowers, as is the norm in other parts of the world, they will be penalised, by being put at risk of retribution from perpetrators. In short, whistleblowing becomes highly dangerous and something people will have to undertake at their own personal risk. 

Centralising surveillance?

Clause 5 of the Bill also seeks to establish a Cyber Security Centre, which will coordinate cyber security and establish a national contact point available around the clock as one of its core functions. 

The well-documented use of Pegasus spyware in African countries, Zimbabwe included, is another cause for concern among media practitioners. Why? The Israeli-made software has been used clandestinely before, to harass or intimidate journalists, and if the Bill sails through, snooping on phones and emails could become the norm, especially for journalists, who are among the most-targeted professions when it comes to online surveillance and monitoring. 

The Bill only serves the interests of the few, politically connected elites at the expense of the majority, and thoroughly undermines freedom of expression in Zimbabwe

 

If this surveillance has happened elsewhere in Africa, as it has done in Botswana, for example, is it really likely that Zimbabwe would be the exception? 

As the country inches towards the crucial 2023 general elections, journalists may find themselves subject to additional censorship. After all, Zimbabwe already has high rates of human rights violations, according to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zimbabwe, on behalf of media practitioners, has appealed to the president not to sign into law the bill, saying it still requires further scrutiny. 

“A law that addresses issues relating to cyber security, data protection and data privacy, affects every citizen, hence the need for a multi-stakeholder approach in its framing,” MISA Chairperson Golden Maunganidze wrote to the president earlier this month.  “In light of the amendments that were affected, there is a need for an extensive review of the Bill with further input from the general public as well.”

Until there is a citizens' consensus, the Bill’s present status only serves the interests of the few, politically connected elites at the expense of the majority, and thoroughly undermines freedom of expression in Zimbabwe.   

Derick Matsengarwodzi is a freelance journalist and author based in Harare

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

More Articles

Your Words Are Your Weapon — You Are a Soldier in a Propaganda War

Narrative warfare and the role of journalists in it is immense; the context of the conflict, the battleground has shifted to the realm of narratives, where journalists play a decisive role in shaping the narrative.

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 21 Apr, 2024
The Privilege and Burden of Conflict Reporting in Nigeria: Navigating the Emotional Toll

The internal struggle and moral dilemmas faced by a conflict reporter, as they grapple with the overwhelming nature of the tragedies they witness and the sense of helplessness in the face of such immense suffering. It ultimately underscores the vital role of conflict journalism in preserving historical memory and giving a voice to the voiceless.

Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu
Hauwa Shaffii Nuhu Published on: 17 Apr, 2024
Journalism in chains in Cameroon

Investigative journalists in Cameroon sometimes use treacherous means to navigate the numerous challenges that hamper the practice of their profession: the absence of the Freedom of Information Act, the criminalisation of press offenses, and the scare of the overly-broad anti-terrorism law.

Nalova Akua
Nalova Akua Published on: 12 Apr, 2024
Monitoring of Journalistic Malpractices in Gaza Coverage

On this page, the editorial team of the Al Jazeera Journalism Review will collect news published by media institutions about the current war on Gaza that involves disinformation, bias, or professional journalistic standards and its code of ethics.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 9 Apr, 2024
The Perils of Journalism and the Rise of Citizen Media in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia's media landscape is grim, with low rankings for internet and press freedom across the region. While citizen journalism has risen to fill the gaps, journalists - both professional and citizen - face significant risks due to government crackdowns and the collusion between tech companies and authorities to enable censorship and surveillance.

AJR Contributor Published on: 6 Apr, 2024
Orientalism, Imperialism and The Western Coverage of Palestine

Western mainstream media biases and defence of the Israeli narrative are connected to orientalism, racism, and imperialism, serving the interests of Western ruling political and economic elites. However, it is being challenged by global movements aiming to shed light on the realities of the conflict and express solidarity with the Palestinian population.

Joseph Daher
Joseph Daher Published on: 1 Apr, 2024
Ethical Dilemmas of Photo Editing in Media: Lessons from Kate Middleton’s Photo Controversy

Photoshop—an intelligent digital tool celebrated for enhancing the visual appearance of photographs—is a double-edged sword. While it has the power to transform and refine images, it also skillfully blurs the line between reality and fiction, challenging the legitimacy of journalistic integrity and the credibility of news media.

Anam Hussain
Anam Hussain Published on: 26 Mar, 2024
Breaking Barriers: The Rise of Citizen Journalists in India's Fight for Media Inclusion

Grassroots journalists from marginalized communities in India, including Dalits and Muslims, are challenging mainstream media narratives and bringing attention to underreported issues through digital outlets like The Mooknayak.

Hanan Zaffa
Hanan Zaffar, Jyoti Thakur Published on: 3 Mar, 2024
Why Journalists are Speaking out Against Western Media Bias in Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Over 1500 journalists from various US news organizations have signed an open letter criticizing the Western media's coverage of Israel's actions against Palestinians. They accuse newsrooms of dehumanizing rhetoric, bias, and the use of inflammatory language that reinforces stereotypes, lack of context, misinformation, biased language, and the focus on certain perspectives while diminishing others. They call for more accurate and critical coverage, the use of well-defined terms like "apartheid" and "ethnic cleansing," and the inclusion of Palestinian voices in reporting.

Belle de Jong journalist
Belle de Jong Published on: 26 Feb, 2024
Silenced Voices and Digital Resilience: The Case of Quds Network

Unrecognized journalists in conflict zones face serious risks to their safety and lack of support. The Quds Network, a Palestinian media outlet, has been targeted and censored, but they continue to report on the ground in Gaza. Recognition and support for independent journalists are crucial.

Yousef Abu Watfe يوسف أبو وطفة
Yousef Abu Watfeh Published on: 21 Feb, 2024
Artificial Intelligence's Potentials and Challenges in the African Media Landscape

How has the proliferation of Artificial Intelligence impacted newsroom operations, job security and regulation in the African media landscape? And how are journalists in Africa adapting to these changes?

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 18 Feb, 2024
Media Monopoly in Brazil: How Dominant Media Houses Control the Narrative and Stifle Criticism of Israel

An in-depth analysis exploring the concentration of media ownership in Brazil by large companies, and how this shapes public and political narratives, particularly by suppressing criticism of Israel.

Al Jazeera Logo
Rita Freire & Ahmad Al Zobi Published on: 1 Feb, 2024
The Perils of Unverified News: A Case of Nonexistent Flotillas

Can you hide one thousand ships in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? I would say not. But some of my fellow journalists seem to believe in magic.  

Ilya
Ilya U Topper Published on: 16 Jan, 2024
In the Courtroom and Beyond: Covering South Africa's Historic Legal Case Against Israel at The Hague

As South Africa takes on Israel at the International Court of Justice, the role of journalists in covering this landmark case becomes more crucial than ever. Their insights and reporting bring the complexities of international law to a global audience.

Hala Ahed
Hala Ahed Published on: 12 Jan, 2024
Did the NYTimes Manipulate the Sexual Violence Allegations of October 7?

An in-depth examination of the New York Times's investigation of alleged sexual assaults by Hamas during the Israeli war on Gaza, highlighting ethical concerns, and the impact of its reporting on the victims' families. It questions the journalistic integrity of the Times, especially in the context of Western media's portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A picture of the Al Jazeera Media Institute's logo, on a white background.
Al Jazeera Journalism Review Published on: 7 Jan, 2024
Is The New York Times Reproducing Allegations of 'Sexual Violence' to Downplay Israeli Crimes?

The New York Times' report on alleged sexual violence by Palestinian militants raises profound concerns about discrepancies in key testimonies and a biased reporting that aligns with Israeli narratives and downplays Israeli crimes in Gaza.

Mohammad Zeidan
Mohammad Zeidan Published on: 31 Dec, 2023
Embedded journalism: Striking a balance between access and impartiality in war zones

The ethical implications of embedded journalism, particularly in the Israeli invasion of Gaza, raise concerns about the compromise of balance and independence in war coverage.

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 19 Dec, 2023
Through a Mexican lens: Navigating the intricacies of reporting in Palestine

A Mexican journalist's journey through the complexities of reporting on Palestine and gives tips on how to manage this kind of coverage.

Témoris Grecko
Témoris Grecko Published on: 10 Dec, 2023
Echos of Israeli Discourse in Latin American Media on Gaza

Heavily influenced by US and Israeli diplomatic efforts, Latin American media predominantly aligns with and amplifies the Israeli perspective. This divergence between political actions and media representation highlights the complex dynamics shaping Latin American coverage of the Gaza conflict.

Rita Freire Published on: 23 Nov, 2023
Critique of German media's handling of Gaza Conflict

The German media's coverage of the Gaza conflict has been criticized for being biased, presenting a distorted view of the conflict, focusing only on the Israeli perspective, and downplaying the suffering of Palestinians. This biased reporting undermines the media's role as an objective source of information and fails to provide a balanced view of the conflict.

AJR Contributor Published on: 16 Nov, 2023
Colonial legacy of surveillance: hidden world of surveillance technology in the African continent

African nations’ expenditure on surveillance technology from China, Europe and the US is a direct threat to the media, democracy and freedom of speech, and an enduring legacy of colonial surveillance practices.

Derick M
Derick Matsengarwodzi Published on: 14 Nov, 2023
How the New York Times fuelled a crackdown on journalists in India

Vague reporting and a piece ‘laden with innuendo’ by the New York Times gave Indian authorities the excuse they needed to crack down on news website Newsclick

Meer Faisal
Meer Faisal Published on: 31 Oct, 2023
Journalists feel the pain, but the story of Gaza must be told  

People don’t always want to hear the historical context behind horrifying events, resorting even to censorship, but the media must be free to provide it

Aidan
Aidan White Published on: 30 Oct, 2023
Queen Rania is absolutely right - Western media’s double standards on Gaza

Why does international media use loaded and dehumanising language about the Palestinians when reporting on the Israeli bombardment of 2.2 million people in Gaza?

Abeer Ayyoub
Abeer Ayyoub Published on: 27 Oct, 2023