When the government of Zimbabwe adopted a new law requiring telecommunications providers to establish a subscriber database of all SIM card holders, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum fought back.
Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum)
In October 2013, the Zimbabwean government implemented a new law that required telecommunications providers to establish a subscriber database of all SIM card holders—connecting a subscriber’s phone numbers to the subscriber’s name, address, gender, nationality, and passport or ID number. Under the law, service providers were compelled to regularly hand over SIM card registration data to the government, who would then establish its own central subscriber information database. The database would then be available to law enforcement or national security upon simple written request. The database would also have been used for undertaking approved educational and research purposes. Service providers were required to keep a customer’s data for five years after the phone user had ended their contract. The law raised new challenges to the already-embattled right to privacy and free expression in Zimbabwe.
The Forum knew they had to take action as the law provided an already-powerful state with the ability to increase the accuracy of its surveillance on citizens and further clamp down on free speech by identifying anonymous phone numbers.
Soon after the promulgation of the law, the Forum teamed up with Privacy International and formulated a campaign. First, they supported Privacy International in writing a blog post and distributing it widely. The statutory instrument was drafted by the Regulator, Post & Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ), but authorized and passed by the Executive (relevant government ministry). The parliament was on recess at that moment, however upon their return, they reviewed all the regulations that had been passed during the recess by the Executive, relying heavily on the Forum’s research. These actions provoked the parliament to publish a critical report explaining the problems with the SIM registration law. They argued that personal data handed over to law enforcement and security services without judicial authorization was unconstitutional.
The Forum had an established media presence with Zimbabwean and African-based media groups, which helped bring attention to their cause. In February 2014, the Forum held a conference on surveillance and safeguards in Zimbabwe, which was well-attended by government, civil society, and media. The conference was also widely covered in local press.
The Forum carefully crafted their proposals to the government, ensuring they weren’t emphasizing privacy at the expense of national security. After all, the restrictions at hand were seemingly implemented to increase State surveillance and protect national security, so the Forum knew they had to understand the government’s point of view first.
In their proposals, the Forum explained that national security and privacy are both important and governments can defend their country without unnecessarily overreaching into people’s privacy. The Forum repeatedly emphasized the importance of national security, but brought attention to the fact that Zimbabwe had obligations to respect international law and judicial oversight. The Forum was inspired by speeches delivered by Navi Pillay, the Swedish Ambassador during the launch of the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance, and the work of Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. At the end, the Parliament repealed the legal provisions that allowed police to access user information without a court order (that had been collected when users registered their SIM cards) from mobile service providers. The annulment followed the concurrence of those adverse reports prepared by the Parliamentary Legal Committee against the Statutory Instrument on Postal and Telecommunications (Subscriber Registration) Regulations.
The Forum continues their work, now focusing on the Interceptions of Communications Act. As they’ve learned, advocacy takes time to yield results, but they will continue to uphold the principle of what they’re fighting for and adjust their goals accordingly.
- Governments are complex. Ensure you find and rally the people within them that are sympathetic to your cause.
- Advocacy takes time to yield results.
- Coalitions are important and can give you credibility in your country.