Zimbabwe’s new police powers provoke fear of more blackmail

Cell phone user (Photo courtesy of AllAfrica.com)

Cell phone user (Photo courtesy of AllAfrica.com)

The Zimbabwean government has authorised security agencies to have wide-ranging access to personal information about everyone in the country who has a telephone or Internet access, effective Oct. 1.

Human rights defenders and legal experts say the new regulations violate Section 57 of the new Zimbabwean constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to privacy.

Those with the least power — such as the LGBTI community — fear they will bear the brunt of this change.

In Zimbabwe, most LGBTI people live their lives in secret, fearing retribution from authorities and ostracism by society and families. Blackmail and extortion, especially by uniformed forces, are a common phenomenon.

Now that those same authorities have been granted more powers, LGBTI people fear that they will use the new powers to harass, intimidate, arrest and blackmail the vulnerable, using evidence from intercepted communications.

LGBTI people who were interviewed for this article expressed both outrage and fear:

‘This law will result in us being victimised by authorities; blackmail will be on the increase. We have had cases of police blackmailing individuals after discovering their sexual orientation. Organisations working on human rights issues have been targeted and LGBTI activists are not an exception” — FT, a lesbian from Harare

“Once I was arrested and police were investigating my blackmailer’s claims that I was making sexual advances at him. In the end I was a victim of both the police and my blackmailer. Now I can imagine what the situation will be like for many in the LGBTI community.” — TN, an LGBTI activist from Bulawayo

Another LGBTI activist called the new regulations a blatant violation of human rights:

“As people working on issues considered ‘taboo or controversial,’ it’s an open secret that we are a target. We have always been under surveillance, but were unsure how much about our work was known.

“We will have an upsurge in cases of organisations, leaders and individuals facing unscrupulous charges. … It will be a problem to convince members [of our organizations] that their information is safe, especially knowing that the police are interested in knowing who our members are.”

The new rules were authorized in Statutory Instrument 142 of 2013 in the Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations, 2013, which was published on Sept. 27. Previously, in order to access people’s phone records, the authorities needed to prove in court that they had justifiable reasons to do so, usually in the context of an investigation into criminal offences.

Under the new rules, telecommunication companies and Internet service providers must set up a central subscriber data base for all users, from which detailed information about subscribers would be released to law enforcement agents on demand for use in “assisting enforcement agencies or safeguarding national security.”

The new regulations compel companies to disclose subscriber data upon receiving a “written request signed by a law enforcement agent who is not below the rank of Assistant Commissioner of police or a co-ordinate rank in any other law enforcement agency.”

The information that must be collected from subscribers and supplied to law enforcement on demand includes:

  • Full name
  • Permanent residential address
  • Nationality
  • Gender
  • Subscriber identity number
  • National identification number
  • Passport number

Telecommunications companies will no longer be allowed to activate any SIM card that is not fully registered, the rules say. Providing false information upon registering a SIM card, such as regarding one’s residential address, is now an offence.

The regulations provide for up to six months in prison for customers who resell SIM cards without informing the company or otherwise supply inaccurate information to the registration system.

Although Section 8 (13) of the Regulations says “any person who is aggrieved by any unlawful use of his personal data shall have the right to seek legal redress,” that does not provide much assurance of privacy:

“Once police know your secret, you either pay them to protect yourself or they will divulge your information to sensationalist papers, which are common nowadays. As a gay man I feel I will have no protection by the law even if I wanted redress, ” lamented Tendai B from Harare.

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