Zimbabwe National Army commander Ezdai Chimonyo recently announced it was the military’s obligation to monitor social media trends to weed out unruly elements peddling misinformation, inciting violence and civil disobedience.
Yet the Constitution prescribes the police as custodians to investigate any alleged cyber-criminal activities by civilians.
By Marshall Bwanya
Civic society, law experts and analysts alarmed by the recent military’s declaration highlighted how this was an unconstitutional measure engineered to infringe, citizens’ rights to privacy, association and expression.
Media expert and human rights lawyer Chris Mhike bemoaned that the intrusion of the military in social media communications connotes the militarization of platforms of expression, a scenario that obviously compromises the freedom that should ideally be associated with speech.
Mhike emphasized that the military as an arm of the State’s enforcement machinery prescribed in the Constitution had no place in the communication processes of civilians.
“Section 211 of the Constitution stipulates that the Zimbabwe Defence Forces are the only lawful military forces in Zimbabwe whose function under Section 212 is to protect the nation, its people, its national security and interests and territorial integrity.
“There is presently no evidence to suggest that social media threatens the security or territorial integrity of Zimbabwe. If there should be any security-related problems on social media, there surely would be alternative, civil and more palatable mechanisms to deal with such problems.
“The military is ill-suited to manage (through monitoring) social media platforms. Such espionage activities violate the Constitutional requirement for the military to uphold the fundamental rights of citizens, specifically including free expression,” he said.
Section 61 of the Constitution provides for freedom of expression, the military’s ambitions to monitor social media gravely threatens that fundamental right.
The natural consequence to the threat of freedom of expression is the corrosion of Zimbabwe’s status as a democratic society.
Citizens will innately be inhibited in their ability to freely communicate on social media and other related platforms.
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum executive director Blessing Gorejena highlighted that social media was a modern phenomenon being utilized by citizens to exercise constitutionally enshrined rights such as freedom of expression, association and privacy.
Gorejena argued that the military’s endeavors to monitor social media were ill conceived unconstitutional motives bent to negate the core values of human rights.
“Having a militarised approach to such kind of processes to us negates the core values of human rights, rule of law and democracy.
“We have sufficient safeguards on how those freedoms must be exercised; of course we are supposed to respect the rights of others when exercising our freedoms.
“Whenever they are elements that seek to disrespect the rights of others, or disregard the rights of others and if it is deemed a criminal element then police must investigate and follow due process,” she said.
Gorejena advised that if the military was aggrieved should utilize the due process to consult Constitutional court that adjudicates to that.
“So we are saying our bill of rights is very clear, if they are any violations then the responsible entities should approach our courts of the land and get direction from the courts.
“Otherwise Why have a unilateral approach to such kind of core fundamental elements that advances our ability to exercise our rights and enjoy our freedoms,” she added.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime since the 2018 August 1, military killings have always been suspicious and a bit paranoid with civilian activities on social media.
In January 2019, the government switched off internet connectivity in the face of violent protests.
Government argued that the shutdown was necessitated by security concerns; the High Court however, later on overturned the decision declaring it illegal.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA), national director Tabani Moyo said the military’s recent ambitions to monitor social media were both unconstitutional and pernicious attempts to invade civil space.
“The language of the uniformed forces threatening to undertake surveillance on quite sweeping statements to counter subversive materials is quite shocking.
“It marks of a hyena accusing its cub that it smelling like a goat to justify cannibalism against its own.
“Where there are challenges in cases pertaining to cyber security, data protection, and electronic transactions it is not the army’s mandate to handle such issues. The army should be busy in the barracks rather than coming into civilian spaces,” he said.
The police as the state arm responsible for dealing with civil issues the wake of the army’s intentions to monitor social media have not declared being overwhelmed by cyber-crimes.