Gvt to escalate social media blitz

HARARE - After successfully and temporarily jamming the WhatsApp platform during Wednesday’s nationwide stay-away, there are fears that government will intensify controls as we approach the 2018 elections, observers contend.

However, as they say; once bitten twice shy — citizens after this ordeal are already using other platforms that cannot be jammed in preparation of the worst.

Veteran broadcaster John Masuku said government is likely to intensify controls of various progressive platforms that offer alternative views which are usually downplayed on public media.

“Because there are many alternatives in social media, users will always find some new ways of communicating. At this discovery rate there will most likely be new app discoveries by the time we get to 2018. Users are only urged to use social media responsibly for total effectiveness in building a democratic society.”

Media practitioner Tabani Moyo said the burden of the country is that it is under a leadership which detests freedom of expression.

“Adding to this problem is the fact that the country’s telecommunication providers ride on the mobile services which are licensed periodically.

“The licensing is meant to control ‘good behaviour on the part of the services providers’. To control this behaviour, the government through the Interception of Communications Act (ICA) makes it mandatory for the mobile phone networks to provide for ‘snooping devices’ and respond accordingly to the requests of the government at any given time.”

Moyo added that this is what happened on July 6.

“The service providers budged in to the need to maintain profit making as opposed to respecting the rights of the citizenry. In summary they fell for the panic button triggered by the ruling party. This is verified by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) statement literally threatening the citizenry to stop sharing information of the anarchy that has befallen the nation.”

Moyo said since the service providers are at the mercy of the government for existence, this occurrence is likely going to be repeated ahead of the election season.

“However, the citizens must keep on exploring new platforms of communicating especially through downloading VPN or “virtual private network” provides an added layer of Internet security, which allows people to peruse the Internet freely, securely access business files remotely, without the fear of compromising their sensitive data.

“VPN usage is growing rapidly as more and more people across the world are choosing to encrypt, secure and hide ip addresses during their online sessions.

“When you have downloaded such software, even if the government orders the local service providers to block the platform that will not have effect.”

Playwright Leonard Matsa said: “This is a government of predominantly old people with an inferior tech capacity forced into unfamiliar territory of ejabberd, XMPP, MQTT by an imminent people’s revolution.

“It will never win a tech war against a modern population of millions, supported by a sophisticated tech savvy Diaspora and sympathetic international hackers.

“Already people have started sharing jam bypassing software. And soon the unpopular government will learn the hard way that stealing public resources and technology are two different professions.”

Journalist Reyhana Masters said the very strong likelihood that the government activated an Internet kill switch to shut down the internet during the stairway on Wednesday gives us all a clear indication that they will not tolerate any alternative information disseminating platforms.

“They will undoubtedly use the same measures as we head towards the elections. In fact, the actions and the warnings by the President and State authorities regarding the use of social media to disseminate information clearly shows that efforts to shut-down the internet will intensify as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate and we head towards the 2018 elections.

“In fact, Mugabe was very clear that the government will take specific measures, according to a report in the state media earlier this year (April) when he complained about the misuse of internet and pointed out ‘that the Chinese have put in place security measures and we will look at these so that we stop these abuses on the internet.’

“This declaration along with the ominous warning by Potraz on Wednesday that; ‘anyone generating, passing on or sharing such abusive and subversive materials which are tantamount to criminal behaviour, will be disconnected and the law will take its course.’

“This is in spite of the fact that our new Constitution expressly allows freedom of expression,” said Masters.

Political commentator McDonald Lewanika said as the people tested the resolve and power to bring the government to account, the government through the jamming of social media and other repressive actions also tested its power and apparatus to repress public dissent.

“What was witnessed with the jamming was probably a test run and such methods are likely to be ramped up as the situation gets worse or towards critical political contests.

“However, efforts by governments across the world to control social media have failed and it is unlikely that the Zimbabwean government will have the means nor the capacity to succeed where other better resourced regimes have failed.

“Social media platforms are now a dime to a dozen, and methods of circumventing jams are readily available from a cursory search on the Internet. Attempts to shut down this space is an exercise in futility as with other methods of repression pitted against a people resolved in their actions and stung by their suffering,” said Lewanika.

Media practitioner Rashweat Mukundu said the ‘‘shut-down’’ of WhatsApp during the protest was definitely intentional.

“Through such instructions the government can compel service providers to shut off the Internet thereby disabling the whole social media. The president has indicated that the Chinese may be asked to help and China is quite good at clamping social media.

“If this technology is transferred to Zimbabwe then we may see an intensification of the shut-down of the social media. Also to note that the government is crafting a law to compel all telecoms providers to be under one Internet international gateway. This is akin to handing over the keys to the to the government as they can shut off and open as they please. If they don’t have the capacity right now, they can easily develop it,” said Mukundu.

Media practitioner Nigel Nyamutumbu said the jamming of WhatsApp read together with a stern public warning statement issued by telecommunications regulator Potraz is worrying and poses a threat on citizens’ rights to freedom of expression, communication as well as privacy explicitly guaranteed in the Constitution.

“By all means, blocking or threatening public communication tells of desperation on the part of government to control citizens conscience and by extension propagate a culture of fear.

“As momentum is building towards the watershed 2018 elections, there is a real possibility that threats to clampdown on public communication or the media in general may exacerbate,” said Nyamutumbu.

He added that the government has set an unfortunate precedence of instilling fear among members of the public during times of political contestations or whenever their hegemony is under threat.

“While the government has publicised its appetite to regulate social media, this will unlikely materialise as the State is likely to continue delaying broader media law and policy reforms thereby constraining the wider public communication space.”

Misa-Zimbabwe chairperson Kumbirai Mafunda said this obsession with controls should cease.

“At this rate we won’t be surprised if this government bids to control how Zimbabweans breathe. The government is living and practising stone-age era tactics and it won’t succeed in pushing through this cowardly repression.”

Zimbabwe Editors’ Forum acting chairperson Njabulo Ncube said: “The jamming is going to intensify because have seen impact of social media mobilisation. Right now there’s no clear cut leader of the social arrest but social media. Indeed the government has means to control, the Chinese have been here long time and are good at it. Remember also there are cyber laws being crafted and likely to be rail-roaded soon.”

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