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Will Free Expression Equal Terrorism in Zimbabwe? 0

Harare – Four years ago, a faceless writer using the nom de guerre Baba Jukwa set Facebook agog with detailed exposes of machinations within the ruling Zimbabwe National People’s Union Patriotic Front (ZANU PF). Garnering over 400,000 followers on Facebook, Jukwa pierced the veil over freedom of expression in a conservative Zimbabwe.

The enigmatic character, thought to be a mole within ZANU PF, remains unknown and has never been caught.

Now the government – with a history of intolerance to dissent – is not taking chances with social media ‘dissidents’ in the ilk of Baba Jukwa. It is crafting a bill to clamp down on cybercrime and terrorism, but journalists fear the bill will trample the fragile freedoms of the press and expression in the country.

Should it become law, the Computer and Cyber Crime Bill will ensure that ‘abusers of social media’ are stopped dead in their tracks if statements by the government, the police and the army are anything to go by.

Commander of the Zimbabwe National Army, Lieutenant General Valerio Sibanda, recently told the government-run Herald newspaper that the army was training its officers to deal with “cyber warfare where weapons – not necessarily guns but basic information and communication technology – are being used to mobilise people to do wrong things.”

The country’s Information Media and Broadcasting Services Minister, Chris Mushowe, has dismissed fears that the Computer and Cyber Crime Bill will be a death knell for press freedom, but his threats reflect the opposite.

“This Bill is not intended to kill freedom of expression, it is not intended to silence people…If anything, this is intended to ensure we join other nations in fighting the threat of terrorism,” Mushowe told the local media following a briefing with the British Ambassador to Zimbabwe Catriona Laing in August. “We do not want information to be transited through Zimbabwe or information here that threatens the national security of other countries.”

Despite guaranteeing freedoms of expression and of the press under its new Constitution, Zimbabwe is not the most conducive of places for journalists to do their jobs freely, especially those working for the independent press.

The Washington-based media advocacy organisation Freedom House named Zimbabwe, alongside Bangladesh, Turkey, Burundi, France, Serbia, Yemen, Egypt and Macedonia, as countries which suffered the largest declines in press freedom in 2015 in its Freedom of the Press report for 2016.

Already burdened by a raft of laws that restrict access to information, journalists have reason to worry. The Computer and Cyber Crime Bill could be the biggest and meanest strategic weapon the government has yet unleashed on free expression and press freedom.

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By Busani Bafana

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