A prominent professor studying communication in Namibia says member countries in the 16-nation Southern African Development Community, or SADC, have enacted and drafted cybersecurity laws which infringe on citizens’ freedom of expression. Zimbabwe is one of the southern African nations that critics say has drafted strict cybersecurity laws in the region — awaiting President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s signature.
A professor in Namibia said most cybersecurity laws in the region infringe on the right to privacy and freedom of expression and are in need of revision.
Admire Mare is a professor of communication, journalism and media technology at Namibia University of Science. This week, he published a report examining how basic freedoms should be at the core of policies lawmakers should consider when drafting laws.
“Human rights should be at the center of policy making and drafting of legislation. If you miss that out you may actually end up infringing, curtailing the exercise of some of the basic rights that human beings must be able to [enjoy],” he said.
The report titled “Cybersecurity and Cybercrime Laws in the SADC Region: Implications on Human Rights,” looks at several countries in the region. However, Mare singles out South Africa as one of the few 16-nation member countries with laws taking citizens’ freedoms into account.
Tabani Moyo is the director of the Harare-based Media Institute of Southern Africa, or MISA, an organization with SADC member representatives, where the report was launched. He called on President Mnangagwa to rethink Zimbabwe’s Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill and reverse course from signing the bill into law. The bill was recently passed by parliament and critics say it punishes social media users for minor infractions.
Moyo said the bill, if signed as is, only empowers few people.
“It fails to provide protection for a whistleblower in a comprehensive manner. Secondly, it provides the security forces the power to snoop into our communication through the Cyber Security Center [Zimbabwe’s cybersecurity agency]. Thirdly, it is just impossible to define interference with personal data without [providing] legal oversight from the judiciary,” he said.
Moyo said the bill creates loopholes for authorities to abuse citizens similar to what is happening in Lesotho, Tanzania and Zambia.
Human rights advocates say authorities in these countries have routinely used laws to arrest opposition members and curtail their activities. But the bill has some supporters.
Lawyer and information and communications technology expert, Jacob Mutevedzi, praised Zimbabwe’s parliament for passing what he calls a “progressive and commendable cyber statute.”
“Prior to this law [bill awaiting signature to be implemented] the legal framework for cyber security and data protection in Zimbabwe was incoherent and half baked. The country lacked a comprehensive legal framework for the regulation of cybersecurity and data protection. The consolidation of cyber related offences and regulation of data protection under the current statute within a single framework is a welcome development which accords with regional practices,” said Mutevedzi.
Professor Mare, however, said it is also the responsibility of rights organizations like MISA to take action against the cyberlaws endangering journalists and citizens’ rights.
“Strategic litigation — we have seen in different countries — can be an opportunity that can be harnessed. Make use of public interest lawyers and to test the constitutionality of some of these proposed and enacted laws,” said Mare.
Zimbabwe’s government has for long insisted that it needs a tight cyberlaw to deal with what it calls “falsehoods” peddled especially on social media.