Mugabe bid to curb ISPs hits critics

October 28, 2005

The Times Higher examines how some countries restrict freedom on the internet

Zimbabwean academics and students have been affected by, but not specifically targeted for, internet and e-mail restrictions. It has been their involvement in human rights and opposition activities, rather than in universities, that has drawn the attention of state security operatives.

"Zimbabwe has a strong student movement. Students, along with academics, have exercised their role as critical analysts," said Zoe Titus, a media freedom specialist at the Namibian-based Media Institute of Southern Africa.

In 2003, President Robert Mugabe said "rich imperialist northern" nations used information technologies as tools of espionage and propaganda against developing countries and vowed to control internet use at home. He has scrambled independent radio broadcasts and has moved to curtail free expression on the web.

Use of the internet as an information outlet by pro-democracy groups had, Ms Titus said, "become a supposed security issue for the Government" and was tied into clampdowns on critical voices using draconian security, media and non-governmental organisations laws. "By virtue of their work, students and academics have become national security targets."

Telecommunications laws allow the Government to order the interception or monitoring of e-mails and mobile telephones calls in the interests of national security or law and order, although the Supreme Court has declared sections of the law unconstitutional.

Last year, the Government proposed new contracts for all internet service providers, requiring them not to transmit content that infringes Zimbabwean laws and to provide tracing facilities to officials. ISPs oppose the contracts.

Although critics have complained about the blocking of messages (sometimes confirmed by ISPs), it seems plans to control web access have largely failed.

Zimbabwe has reportedly been trying unsuccessfully to buy internet bugging technology from China and has been unable to monitor e-mails.

Economic collapse, a decaying state and the flight of donors have done more to prevent academic access to the web in what was once one of Africa's most web-friendly countries. Academics who can afford computers find access thwarted by crumbling telecommunications facilities and power cuts.

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