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Monday, 20 March, 2000, 09:21 GMT
Outcry at Zimbabwe internet bill
Robert Mugabe
The president could soon intercept e-mail
By Grant Ferrett in Harare

Internet service providers in Zimbabwe are drawing up a petition to try to persuade President Robert Mugabe not to approve a new law giving him powers to monitor and intercept electronic mail and other communications.

The news has been greeted with a state of panic among subscribers

Jim Holland of internet service provider, Mango
The Posts and Telecommunications Bill, which has just received parliamentary approval, is awaiting presidential assent before becoming law.

Brian Kagoro of Lawyers for Human Rights said that coming just a month before scheduled parliamentary elections, the changes were "designed to remind internet service providers, (ISPs) and others that they operated only at the mercy of the president".

Monitor communications

The bill was initially viewed with some optimism by opposition and human rights activists, who hoped it would finally break the government's monopoly on the provision of fixed-line telephone services and broadcasting.

Those hopes were overshadowed when it was realised that Section 98 of the bill allowed the president to order service providers to "intercept or monitor communications or suspend services to individuals in the interests of national security or the maintenance of law and order".

"The news has been greeted with a state of panic among subscribers," said Jim Holland, system administrator for Mango - the first service provider to set up in Zimbabwe 10 years ago.

Mobile phones

Many e-mail users mistakenly believe that the law has already taken effect and that their messages are being monitored.

Mr Holland points out that this is not the case and that the law - which would also affect Zimbabwe's privately-run mobile phone companies as well as state-run organisations - has yet to be enacted.

The service providers hope that if they gather the names of enough people opposed to the planned changes President Mugabe might amend them.

But that seems highly unlikely. There has been a centralising of power in the hands of the 76-year-old president throughout his 20 years in office and he is clearly reluctant to allow the previously largely unregulated area of the internet and e-mail to remain outside his control.

The changes would also, for the first time, introduce a licensing system for internet service providers, threatening several which are not wholly Zimbabwean-owned.

Government officials say they are merely updating the law in order to keep up with changing technology.

But the timing has raised suspicions of critics. The bill was hurried through parliament in just two weeks after languishing in its draft stage for two years.

Opponents of the new law say that if it does receive presidential assent, they will consider mounting a legal challenge.

They insist that it breaches Zimbabwe's constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression.

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27 Jan 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
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