THE Zimbabwe National Army (ZNA) commander Edzai Chimonyo says the military would soon start snooping into private communications between private citizens to “guard against subversion,” alarming media groups who fear that the country was moving towards a surveillance State.
Chimonyo told senior military commissioned officers at the Zimbabwe Military Academy (ZMA) in Gweru that social media was now a security threat which the uniformed forces should closely monitor.
“As commander of the Zimbabwe National Army, I am happy that the course laid a proper foundation in the areas of cyber security, which pose a dangerous threat to our national security,” Chimonyo told the army officers who had completed a 25-week training course in Gweru last Friday.
“Social media poses a dangerous threat to our national security. Social media is one of the tools that is being used for misinformation and I believe that your training has been an eye opener to the rigours and realities of technological advancements.”
But the Media Institute of Southern Africa Zimbabwe (Misa) said the threats of surveillance by the uniformed forces were alarming, saying the whole process of regulating digital security should be left to a civilian arm of the government through the ICT ministry.
Misa chairperson Tabani Moyo, said: “The issue of regulating the digital space should be done in a structured manner whereby there is a law that comes into effect. In this case the Ministry of ICT is drafting a Cyber Crime and Data Protection Bill which combines two broad thematic areas. We only hope that the government is coming up with this law for the purpose of enhancing communication through the digital space rather than shutting it down.
Zimbabweans have successfully used social media to mobilise against government, notably in 2016 when a spontaneous social media movement led by Evan Mawarire coalesced into the biggest uprising against Robert Mugabe, the former president who died in Singapore in September last year after his army removed him from power two years earlier.
A protest against rising fuel prices in January last year was also driven by social media as Zimbabweans bypassed traditional opposition parties to protest President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s handling of the failing economy. In response, the government shut down the internet and access to social media platforms to prevent people mobilizing before the courts.
The move by army chiefs has alarmed human rights groups, who say this was more evidence that the country was slipping back into authoritarian rule that characterised Mugabe’s near four-decade rule.
“The language of the uniformed forces threatening to undertake surveillance on quite sweeping statements of trying to counter surveillance materials is quite shocking. It smacks of a hyena trying to accuse its young one of smelling like a goat to justify cannibalism against its own.
“Our position as Misa Zimbabwe is that the whole process of regulation of the digital space should be left to the civilian arm of the government through the Ministry of ICTs. Where there are challenges pertaining to that law when it comes into effect that should be dealt with by the police”
Luke Tamborinyoka, the MDC deputy spokesperson yesterday told NewsDay that in trying to monitor social media, the army was over-stepping its constitutional mandate.
“We are simply dealing with an analogue regime in this digital age. What do soldiers have to do with the internet? This is absurd. If anyone commits any cyber crime that is an issue for the police and certainly not the military,” he said.
Cabinet last year approved a Cyber Crime, Security and Data Protection Bill drafted in 2016 and is set to be tabled before Parliament for debate. The Bill seeks to combat cyber crime and will give government a leeway to snoop on citizens’ private communication.
Observers say the crafting of the Bill showed the ruling Zanu PF’s paranoia following the emergence of social movements utilising social media platforms.
Chimonyo’s calls also come after self-exiled former Higher Education minister Jonathan Moyo has released a series of Twitter threads insinuating the growing tension between the military and Mnangagwa.
The ZNA commander told the army officers to cascade down to their subordinates information on the need to monitor social media.
“I must remind you that our detractors have resorted to the use of social media platforms to subvert security forces in pursuit of their own hidden agendas and anyone working on a networked computer is under threat of cybercrime, hacking and subversion thus it must always be the responsibility of every one of you to be on the guard against social media subversion and help the men and women under your command to guard against such threats,” Chimonyo said.
The military course number 4/29/19 was made up of 68 specialist officers with senior ranks who included three captains; two warrant officers; 10 colour sergeants; 44 sergeants and nine private soldiers.
The other areas the senior troops got advanced training in included individual soldiering skills, conventional warfare and low intensity operations.
Last year, during protests that saw the army killing civilians in the streets of Harare, State security minister Owen Ncube ordered the shutdown of the internet saying social media was fuelling anger as well as whipping emotions among citizens.
Chimonyo said the army was carrying more training for its officers so that they keep abreast with the roles of ensuring peace, law and public order in the country.
“Top among the training priorities was the need to enable graduands to fully appreciate the roles of the ZNA, AFZ (Air Force of Zimbabwe) and the ZRP (Zimbabwe Republic Police. Thorough knowledge of these security services remains critical since they play a complimentary role in the defence and maintenance of peace, law and public order in our beloved country,” said the ZNA commander.
He revealed that the graduating soldiers were “pharmacists, health officers, environment health technicians, social workers, accountants, auditors, chaplains, information technology technicians, ammunition technicians, electronic engineers, geospatial experts, journalists and photographers among other specialties”.