Zimbabwe's political activism on Facebook costly

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Vilas Mavhudzi, like many others, might have seen his comment on Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s Facebook page as any other he would have posted on any other normal “social network” day.

There was a façade of safety expressing one’s views on this popular social network than in a beerhall or on a commuter omnibus where CIO agents have a reputation of clamping down on such “unguided and politically incorrect” comments.

In the wake of the political protests that deposed two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, Mavhudzi, who was now on bail after spending 35 days in custody, made history by becoming Zimbabwe’s first “Facebook arrest”.

He had posted a comment on Tsvangirai’s Facebook page on February 13. It read: “I am overwhelmed, I don’t want to say Mr or PM what happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.”

A Facebook user told the police about the comment. Mavhudzi was accused of “advocating or attempting to take over government by unconstitutional means”.

This was an alert to those who believed in Internet freedom in Zimbabwe and who pointed out it was hard to be charged for comments you post on any social platform on the Internet.

Nhlanhla Ngwenya, the director of Misa Zimbabwe, said people should not be taken in by the hype of social media and its impact on democracy.

“Even though there has been hype about the power of Facebook as a platform for mobilising masses against dictatorship it is also equally true that repressive regimes can also use the same channel to sniff out and crush dissent. For us in Zimbabwe it is even worse because we have a law that actually empowers the authorities to snoop and interfere with our communication and correspondence,” Ngwenya said.

He added: “The Interception of Communications Act allows the authorities to approach Internet service providers for details leading to the arrest of a person.”

The Interception of Communications Act, signed into law by President Robert Mugabe on August 3 2007, sparked much debate and inspired just as much fear in the hearts of many.

Human rights defenders and political activists fiercely attacked the new law, arguing that it is unconstitutional.

The legislation grants the President the right to intercept any communications he considers necessary to protect “the interests of national security or the maintenance of law and order”.

The purpose of this Act is to establish a communications monitoring centre operated by appointed officials “whose function shall be to monitor and intercept certain communications in the course of their transmission through a telecommunication, postal or any other related service system”.

The Interception of Communications Act also provides for the lawful detention of any suspicious postal article “where the authorised person has reasonable grounds to suspect that the postal article contains anything (indicating) an offence or attempted offence is being committed”.

Tawanda Moyo, an avid Facebook and Twitter user, said he was shocked to learn of the arrest of Mavhudzi, describing it as a wake-up call to Zimbabwe.

“I never thought all those conversations we make with friends on current issues and events around us are monitored. This is a terrible discovery,” he said.

United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, in her speech “Internet Rights and Wrongs: Choices & Challenges in a Networked World”, said:

“We are convinced that an open Internet fosters long-term peace, progress and prosperity. The reverse is also true. An Internet that is closed and fractured, where different governments can block activity or change the rules on a whim, where speech is censored or punished, and privacy does not exist, that is an Internet that can cut off opportunities for peace and progress and discourage innovation and entrepreneurship

. . . History has shown us that repression often sows the seeds for revolution down the road. Those who clamp down on Internet freedom may be able to hold back the full impact of their people’s yearnings for a while, but not forever . . . Leaders worldwide have a choice to make.

“They can let the Internet in their countries flourish, and take the risk that the freedoms it enables will lead to a greater demand for political rights. Or they can constrict the Internet, choke the freedoms it naturally sustains, and risk losing all the economic and social benefits that come from a networked society.”

It however seems like dictators in Africa are keen on making sure that their iron grip on the media extends to the Internet. Most have managed to control print and electronic media.

In Uganda the government, facing social unrest over high food and fuel prices, was set to order its ISPs to block Twitter and Facebook. It’s the latest move in controlling social media to control a popular social movement.

Speaking to Reuters, Godfrey Mutabazi, executive director of the Ugandan Communications Commission, noted that the blame lies squarely in the laps of Twitter and Facebook as vehicles for mass law-breaking.

“If someone is telling people to go and cause mass violence and kill people . . . I can assure you we’ll not hesitate to intervene and shut down these platforms,” he said.

For Africa and southern Africa in particular it seems celebration of social media as a liberator has to wait a while.