Zimbabwe's civil society - frantically trying to preserve the country's shrinking democratic space - is outraged by fresh attempts by the state to push a new law, which seeks to monitor electronic mail and Internet access by citizens.

Representatives from the media, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), lawyers and the generality of civil society met in Harare last Thursday and resolved to raise a case against the constitutionality of the Interception of Communications Bill if passed into law. With ZANU PF having a clear numerical advantage in the bicameral parliament, the bill is assured of easy passage. In what amounts to unacceptable invasion of personal privacy, the Bill authorises police and intelligence chiefs to pry into private communications.

Reads part of the draft Bill: "Under this part, the minister is authorised to issue an inception warrant to authorised persons where there are reasonable grounds for the minister to believe (among other things) that a serious offence has been or will probably be committed or that there is a threat to safety or national security of the country."

Among other things, it also orders telecommunications service providers to install hardware and software facilities and devices to enable interception of communications.

Chris Mhike, a media lawyer, described the bill as an unconstitutional piece of legislation considering that the Supreme Court struck out certain sections of the Postal and Telecommunications Act that were infringing on people's freedoms.

ISPs predict that a number of players in the sector would be forced to close shop due to the prohibitive costs of procuring new equipment as demanded by certain sections of the proposed law.

"We are looking at doing a feasibility study on its impact among ISPs but it is clear that a number will wind up because of the huge costs of buying the equipment, which is not available locally," said James Holland, a representative of the ISPs. "All stakeholders should begin now to fight the proposed law by firstly engaging ZANU PF legislators before it is signed into law. I think it is also imperative to petition the President (Robert Mugabe) as was done with the NGO (non-governmental organisations) Bill. If all this fails and it is passed into law, the last course of action is to fight it in the courts," added Holland.

Journalists' representatives described the Bill as worse than the controversial Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which has claimed private newspapers among them the Daily News and its sister weekly The Daily News on Sunday.

Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) secretary-general Foster Dongozi said the union would mount a legal challenge reminiscent of its battle against repressive sections of AIPPA.

"This should be the route we should take if we are to maintain our freedom of expression because it is scary to have our emails and Internet monitored by moles," said Dongozi.

Financial Gazette