The Zimbabwean government is working on one of its most repressive laws yet, to enable it to snoop on telephone and e-mail messages in a bid to crush rising opposition and dissent. If passed into law, the bill reverses a Supreme Court ruling in 2004, which declared Sections 98 and 103 of the Posts and Telecommunications (PTC) Act unconstitutional because they violated Zimbabwe's constitution.

The full bench of the Supreme Court upheld contentions by the Law Society of Zimbabwe that the presidential powers provided for in the act to intercept mail, telephone calls, e-mail and any other form of communication were unconstitutional.

Section 20 provides for freedom of expression, freedom to receive and impart ideas and freedom from interference with one's correspondence.

The proposed law will also make Zimbabwe, already reeling from political repression and economic breakdown, a closed society functioning like a police state compared to others in the region.

The proposed legislation -- the Interception of Communications Bill -- will give powers to Zimbabwe's Central Intelligence Organisation, the Commissioner of police and the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority to spy on citizens' phones and e-mails and use the information gleaned through spying for its operations.

The information obtained in this way this will now be admissible as evidence in court. The law is expected to be rail-roaded through parliament soon.It will compel telecoms service providers to install special equipment to help the government to intercept private communications. Government will set up a Monitoring and Interception of Communications Centre.

From here, spy units will operate facilities to pry into messages from both fixed and mobile phones. The bill will also empower state agencies to open mail passing through the post and through licensed courier service providers.

It authorises the minister of transport and communications to issue a warrant to state functionaries to order the interception of information if there are "reasonable grounds for the minister to think that there is a threat to the safety of the country".

Although South Africa and other progressive governments have similar laws, such legislation in the hands of a dictatorship like Zimbabwe could be used to effectively erode freedom of speech and expression. However, the South African law sets out the rules for state- authorised snooping. It clearly states that it is an offence punishable by a fine of up to R2m or jail for a decade for anyone to monitor or intercept any communications unless it is legally sanctioned.

The law, promulgated in SA last year, the Regulation of Interception of Communications and Provision of Communication Related Information Act, allows the police, defence force, National Intelligence Agency and the Secret Service to intercept communications to promote national security, or to prevent or solve offences including terrorism or organised crime. The authorities can only intercept communications if they obtain a court order to do so.

The communications department is creating centres to store store records of e-mail and cellphone messages. Vodacom spokeswoman Dot Field says many crimes have been solved using call records, but the operators only hand over the details if a court order obliges them to do so.

Business Day