Zanu PF invades cellphones

Zanu PF has been dispatching its anti-sanctions campaign messages via the information superhighway through mobile phones, as the former ruling party steps up its campaign ahead of general elections expected later this year.

Ironically, the former ruling party protested after MDC-T courted mobile phone service provider Econet Wireless to broadcast its campaign messages, and threatened to cancel its operating licence in the heat of the presidential election run-off campaign in June 2008.

One of the messages sent to NetOne subscribers read: “The time has come for every Zimbabwean to sign the petition or dial 0044 7893227001 for the removal of illegal sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States of America.”

However, observers view the latest move as an infringement on people’s privacy as the party did not seek NetOne subscribers’ consent before dispatching its campaign messages.

NetOne is a quasi-parastatal formed after the unbundling of Posts and Telecommunications Corporation (PTC) in the late 1990s.

It is hard to see how SMS could easily be brought within the regulatory ambit without resorting to heavy-handed censorship. Also, SMSs, like email, can easily be “spoofed”.

This means that messages can be sent from masked or fake addresses (as with email “spam”), making the regulator’s task even more difficult.

Although the use of cellphones in political campaigning or broadcasting in Zimbabwe is not yet well developed, the potential is obvious.

MDC-T spokesperson Nelson Chamisa, who is also Information and Communication Technology minister, said Zanu PF was violating people’s rights by sending them unsolicitated messages.

He said it was ironic that Zanu PF cried foul when his party sent messages to people who had voluntarily
subscribed to get information.

All telecommunications companies are licensed by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz), a creation of an Act of Parliament.

Potraz director-general Charles Sibanda yesterday said his organisation had no mandate to meddle in party politics but would act whenever they received reports of network abuse.

“If there is an abuse of network, where for example, people get threatening messages or unsolicitated messages, we act. But our mandate has nothing to do with politics.”

Nathaniel Manheru, believed to be Presidential spokesperson George Charamba, said in 2008 in his weekly column:

“The next polls will be fought on the waves, which is why Econet, and its card-carrying owner, Strive Masiyiwa, are so critical to the MDC-T.

“We wait for a new propaganda service, which MDC-T seeks to unveil on June 14, using Masiyiwa’s network, through a toll-free facility. Thank God cellular licences are up for renewal and government has to deal with all manner of mischief.”

Said Chamisa on : “Surely what is good for the goose should be good for the gander. But what Zanu PF is doing borders on offensive behaviour because there has to be subscriber consent or recipient agreement, which is basically what we were doing.”

Chamisa said the norm in the civilised world was that “you do not send messages to people without their consent”.

Zanu PF, which held its conference in December last year, has stepped up its campaign ahead of the next elections expected later this year.

The party’s main trump cards are the sanctions imposed against its senior officials by the West and indigenisation and economic empowerment.

Zanu PF spokesman Rugare Gumbo could not be reached for comment. In December last year, Gumbo, however, said he was not aware of who was behind the pro-Zanu PF mobile phone messages, although he said “they are good messages”.

Cellular telephones are potentially an important medium for electoral communication, for two reasons: ownership and access to cellular phones far outstrips access to landlines.

This disparity is especially apparent in Zimbabwe, but it is a general phenomenon.
Cellphones have potential as a “broadcasting” medium that is not comparable to traditional landlines.

Whereas the landline could be used for voice calls and transmitting documents, the cellphone could send and receive text messages, audio and video files.

So far this has focused on the use of text or short messages (SMSs). There are two well-documented examples from the Philippines.

In 2001 President Joseph Estrada was forced to resign after a popular campaign against him orchestrated by SMS.

Then, in the 2004 presidential elections, SMS was a very popular campaigning tool for the main candidates.

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