Telecommunication governance is key to guaranteeing internet rights in Zimbabwe
On 22 August 2023, the eve of Zimbabwe’s 2023 General Election, internet service in Zimbabwe was disrupted, effectively restricting access to information and freedom of expression for citizens. Internet restrictions affected customers of Zimbabwe’s leading services providers including Netone, Econet, TelOne and Liquid Telecom. At the time, Econet’s statement informed customers: “We are facing a system challenge and we are working towards restoring normalcy. Any inconvenience caused is sincerely regretted.”
Across Africa, digital technologies have altered communication, with social media constituting an online public sphere, the preeminent arena for public communication and culture. Through these technologies, citizens have access to real-time information, enabling unprecedented levels of mobilisation and voice. In response, governments, including in Zimbabwe, have imposed internet shutdowns —particularly when faced with national crises and protests. Despite commitments by African States to democratic governance of the internet through guaranteeing freedom of expression and access to information, the frequency of internet shutdowns is increasing across the continent. The Zimbabwe Government ordered internet shutdowns in 2016, 2019 and, most recently, in 2023. The 2019 shutdown was instituted amid widespread protests against fuel price increases. The Government ordered an nationwide internet shutdown affecting customers of major service providers, resulting in access to information about the protest being cut off.
Internet service provision is not just a business matter, it is political. Using legislative and regulatory measures, service providers are enlisted to effect shutdowns. Telecommunications providers comply without adequate knowledge about the legality of the process and its implications on the rights of their subscribers.
In the 2019 shutdown, Econet issued the following statement to subscribers:
"Further to a warrant issued by the Minister of State in the President's Office for National Security through the Director-General of the President's Department acting in terms of the Interception of Communications Act, internet services are currently suspended across all networks and internet service providers. We must act when directed, and the matter is beyond our control.”
Other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) issued similar statements. The shutdown was challenged by human rights groups, with the case revealing the Minister of State in the President’s Office for National Security did not have the authority to make such orders as stipulated in the Interceptions of Communications Act. Subsequently, Zimbabwean courts suspended the internet shutdown.
The private sector has a responsibility to understand national legislation and the extent to which government directives are legal. In the case of the 2019 shutdown, neither the issuing authority nor the service provider understood who could order a shutdown. Further, the incident foregrounds concern about the degree to which telecommunications companies consider human rights when making operational decisions. Telecommunication service providers are essential to guaranteeing citizens their right to freedom of expression and access to information. The United Nations developed the Principles on Business and Human Rights, recognising businesses as organs performing specialised functions that must respect human rights. This entails avoiding causing or contributing to adverse human rights impacts through their activities and addressing such impacts when they occur. Zimbabwean telecommunications companies must use all means necessary to ensure their operations do not contribute to human rights infringement, even in cases where the government issues a directive.
The Principles offer further recommendations on how businesses can mainstream human rights into their operations, namely through a policy statement expressing their commitment to human rights. Accountability Lab Zimbabwe conducted a short survey to determine if Zimbabwean telecommunications companies have human rights policies in place. It found extreme hesitation from telecommunications companies to respond to the survey due to the state's attitude towards the Principle on Business and Human Rights when government impose internet shutdown.
The Principles further recommend businesses assess risks of adverse human rights impact of their intended activities and have a mitigation plan in place. Zimbabwean telecommunications companies must have policies and procedures to scrutinise whether intended action will negatively impact human rights. Restricting their services has dire impacts on the right to information and free expression.
Accountability Lab bridges the gap between human rights and business through engagements with Zimbabwe telecommunications companies. In July 2023, Accountability Lab, with support from the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, convened a seminar with stakeholders in the telecommunications ecosystem to facilitate constructive discussions on the need to mainstream human rights within their operations. The Lab will continue to support these companies to develop and implement human rights policies to ensure they balance the interests of the state and regulators authorities with the rights of their clients.
By Tinotenda Chishiri, CivActs Program Officer at Accountability Lab Zimbabwe