Mobile-phone penetration is far higher than internet penetration, at almost percent of the population (more than five million people) as of September 2010, an increase from 9 percent in early 2009.11 Econet Wireless introduced third-generation (3G) technology in July 2009 and fourth-generation (4G) technology in May 2010, after two years of waiting for an allocation of frequencies by the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ). Given the monthly subscription fee of US$25, the 3G service is only affordable for the few who are still gainfully employed in a country where the jobless rate is estimated at 94 percent.12 In fact, some observers fear that Zimbabwe has one fixed-line telephone operator, the publicly owned TelOne (formerly the Posts and Telecommunications Corporation, or PTC), which has failed to provide universal access. TelOne boasts just 386,000 subscribers, 50 percent of whom are in the capital, Harare. Only 17 percent of the lines are in rural areas, and 92 percent of the total lines have been digitalized.
See “An Overview of Zimbabwe’s Telecommunications—Potraz Presentation Download,” Technology Zimbabwe (blog), March 5, 2010, http://www.techzim.co.zw/2010/03/zimbabwe-telecoms-overview/.
BuddeComm, “Zimbabwe.” OpenNet Initiative, “Country Profile: Zimbabwe”; “Review: Ecoweb’s 4G Mobile WiMax,” Technology Zimbabwe, May 30, 2010, http://www.techzim.co.zw/2010/05/review-ecoweb-4g-mobile-wimax/.
Getrude Gumede, “Websites for Zimbabwean Cabinet Ministries,” Zimbabwe Telegraph, July 2, 2009, http://www.zimtelegraph.com/p=1249.
BuddeComm, “Zimbabwe.”; “Zimbabwe Cell Phone Boom Still Can’t Beat Investor Fears.” UN Central Emergency Response Fund, “CERF Allocates $5 Million for Protracted Relief and Recovery Operation in Zimbabwe,” news release, January 14, 2010, http://ochaonline.un.org/CERFaroundtheWorld/Zimbabwe2010/tabid/6430/language/en-US/Default.aspx.
ZIMBABWE FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net rather than enhancing access to the internet for the general public, advanced mobile-phone service may sharpen the digital divide by improving access for the few who already have it.
Because of inadequate infrastructural development, the current 3G internet is frustratingly slow. 4G mobile internet access is even more expensive. Initial equipment costs about US$175, and the current monthly subscription stands at US$115 per month.13 The rate for pre-paid mobile web access is US$0.20 per megabyte, with “bundles” ranging from 1 to 1000 megabytes.14 Despite the high costs, during the first week of re-launching its mobile broadband package in October 2010, Econet reported 100,000 new subscribers, and the number continued to grow through to year’s end.Dial-up internet services have been negatively affected by the collapse of the landline infrastructure, with the state-owned telecommunications firm TelOne failing to upgrade or repair its network. Broadband in Zimbabwe consists mainly of direct satellite connections through VSAT. Other access technologies include GSM, WiMax, and fiber-optic or copperwire ADSL. Broadband is available in major urban areas, particularly in Harare, Bulawayo, and Mutare, and there are plans to extend coverage to other cities.16 However, in addition to the prohibitive cost, broadband is still very slow at 256 kbps. It is largely used by companies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and universities, as most households cannot afford it. The cost of broadband is expected to fall when Econet finishes laying fiber optic cables in late 2010.
Although there is no clear evidence that the government blocks access to digital media, there are structural constraints that suggest indirect blocking. For instance, it is a requirement for every ISP to allow the government to monitor certain traffic at any given time, and all licensed ISPs must connect through the limited internet-access provider (IAP) infrastructure. The government has allocated few frequencies to IAPs, which require expensive equipment. For those who are able to get online, social-networking, videosharing, and microblogging sites such as Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter are freely available, as are international blog-hosting platforms.
ISPs and mobile-phone companies are licensed and regulated by POTRAZ, whose leaders are appointed by the president in consultation with the minister of transport and communication. POTRAZ has been widely accused of partisanship and making politicized decisions, such as the cancellation of TeleAccess’s operating license in 2005.17 The regulator has not directly blocked the establishment of ISPs, but the exorbitant application fees it “Review: Ecoweb’s 4G Mobile WiMax,” Technology Zimbabwe.
“Mobile Internet Revolution Takes Zimbabwe by Storm,” The Zimbabwean, October 27, 2010, http://www.thezimbabwean.co.uk/index.phpoption=com_content&view=article&id=35162:mobile-internet-revolutiontakes-zimbabwe-by-storm&catid=69:sunday-top-stories&Itemid=30.
“Econet Connects 100,000 to Internet,” Bulawayo, http://bulawayoonline.com/latest-news/econet-connects-100-000-tointernet.html, accessed March 5, 2011.
See GlobalTT.com, “Zimbabwe,” http://www.globaltt.com/coverage_countries/Zimbabwe, accessed August 25, 2010.
“Potraz Just Playing Dirty Politics—Shumba,” Zimbabwe Independent, November 18, 2005, http://www.theindependent.co.zw/business/13372.html.
ZIMBABWE FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net charges have hindered the proliferation of such businesses. The fees for IAPs and ISPs range from US$2 million to US$4 million, depending on the type of service to be provided. This is in addition to the 3.5 percent of annual gross income that the provider must pay to POTRAZ.18 Application fees for operating a mobile-phone service are equally steep. There are currently 12 licensed IAPs and 17 ISPs in Zimbabwe.19 Only one of the IAPs, CommIT, has a Class B license, which entitles it to offer internet-based voice services in addition to the normal services that the rest provide.20 Before the IAPs install their equipment, it has to be vetted and approved by the regulator. In addition, the Post and Telecommunications Act of 2000 requires that ISPs renew contracts with TelOne for access to its fixed-line network.
However, there are no stringent regulations that hinder the establishment of cybercafes.
LIMITS ON CONTENT Despite reports of continued human rights abuses and government control over the traditional media, there has been no concrete evidence of systematic internet filtering in Zimbabwe. However, some instances of surveillance and censorship have been reported.
For example, in previous years, e-mail messages to central bank employees were allegedly blocked if they contained references to the main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), or its leader, Morgan Tsvangirai. There have also been cases in which the authorities apparently traced antigovernment e-mail content to its source and arrested suspected senders.The government has from time to time exhibited a desire to control mobile-phone communications, for instance by warning operators not to let subscribers use their networks for political purposes, especially during elections or in other potentially volatile situations.
The authorities issued such a warning in response to the mass circulation of text messages castigating the ruling Zimbabwean African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) during its December 2009 party congress. Econet has in turn warned all its subscribers that their service would be cut off if they sent political messages.22 In June 2010, just days after a column in the government-controlled Herald newspaper threatened Econet with the loss of its operating license, the company complained to the MDC about its use of the network for political purposes, and announced that it was installing software that would identify and block problematic messages.
The POTRAZ website can be found at http://www.potraz.gov.zw/.
“An Overview of Zimbabwe’s Telecommunications—Potraz Presentation Download,” Technology Zimbabwe.
“POTRAZ Calls ICT Providers to Help Define IAP/ISP Roles,” Technology Zimbabwe, May 6, 2010, http://www.techzim.co.zw/2010/05/potraz-iap-isp-roles/.
OpenNet Initiative, “Zimbabwe.” “Zanu PF Texts Sent from Sweden: Econet,” New Zimbabwe, December 17, 2009, http://www.newzimbabwe.com/news1491-Zanu+PF+texts+sent+from+Sweden/news.aspx.
ZIMBABWE FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net The various obstacles to access in Zimbabwe limit the utility of the internet as a means of mass mobilization. Even within the fraction of the population that accesses the medium regularly, there is no coordinated use of social-networking sites to build support for political change. However, overseas-based independent news websites and other digital media have emerged as an important source of alternative information for those able to access them. Sites such as www.newzimbabwe.com and www.zimonline.co.za publish independent information often obtained from stringers or other contacts based inside Zimbabwe, at times generating news later picked up by mainstream media outlets. Thus, during the hotly contested 2008 elections, Zimbabweans used mobile-phone text messages and blogs to disseminate oppositionist and independent versions of events that were not addressed in the severely restricted traditional media. Civic organizations such as Kubatana have been using specialized software to disseminate bulk political text messages to their subscribers and receive feedback from them.23 By contrast, sites like Facebook are mainly used for friendly chats and renewing lapsed social contacts, possibly because of the lack of anonymity on such sites, and fear of repercussions if politically-oriented statements are traced back to those expressing them. Debates on the country’s political and socioeconomic issues and reactions to internet stories on Zimbabwe are mostly confined to chat rooms and feedback sections of online news sites. Even in those cases, the base of contributors is fairly narrow, and the quality of the discussion is often poor.
Blogging offers community organizations, minorities, and individuals the opportunity to express their views, but few internet users know how to establish a blog or have sufficient access to properly maintain one. While some journalists have had training on creating blogs and using various internet tools, they have only rarely shown both the desire and the practical ability to sustain their own sites. Many individuals blogging from inside the country publish under their own names even when harshly criticizing the government, though some retain anonymity for fear of reprisals. Though their overall number is relatively small, blogs have nevertheless become critically important in Zimbabwe as an alternative space for debate, particularly due to the large number of bloggers based outside of the country.
VIOLATIONS OF USER RIGHTS The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including freedom from interference with personal correspondence. However, Section 20(2) of the constitution places a number of limitations on these rights in the interests of national defense, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, and town or country planning.24 Currently, there are no laws Ken Banks, “Mobile Phones Play Role in Zimbabwe,” PCWorld, April 14, 2008, http://www.pcworld.com/businesscenter/article/144535/mobile_phones_play_role_in_zimbabwe.html.
The text of the constitution is available at http://www.parlzim.gov.zw/cms/UsefulResourses/ZimbabweConstitution.pdf.
ZIMBABWE FREEDOM HOUSE Freedom on the Net that specifically protect online modes of communication. Bloggers are not recognized by law as eligible for accreditation as journalists.
Judicial independence is compromised by an appointment process that allows for high levels of executive interference. The judiciary has sometimes demonstrated a degree of autonomy through rulings that are not necessarily favorable to the state, including on freedom of expression, but the government often ignores such decisions.
While most of the charges against journalists in the past few years have either been withdrawn or have resulted in acquittals, continuous harassment of journalists by the authorities has often induced self-censorship, even among those writing for online publications. The country’s civil and criminal defamation laws, the Interception of Communications Act (ICA), and the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act (CODE) all apply equally to online journalists and reporters for traditional media.
The CODE punishes anyone who publicly undermines the authority of or insults the president in any printed or electronic medium with up to 20 years in prison.25 In one recent case, business executive John Norman Alfred Rusthon was arrested in March 2010 for allegedly circulating an e-mail message with photographs purporting to show the lavish interior of the president’s house. He was charged with undermining the office of the president under Section 33(2) (a)(i) of the CODE, and was released on US$200 bail several days later.26 The case was apparently still pending as of the end of 2010.
The CODE has also been applied to internet-related activities outside Zimbabwe. For example, Andrew Meldrum, an American journalist writing for Britain’s Guardian newspaper, was prosecuted in Zimbabwe in 2002 on charges of abusing journalistic privilege by publishing falsehoods on the paper’s website. Prosecutors took the position that Zimbabwean courts have jurisdiction over content published on the internet so long as it can be accessed in Zimbabwe. Meldrum was acquitted, but immediately received a deportation order. Another judge then ruled that he had legal status to stay in the country, since he held a permanent residency permit. Nevertheless, he was reportedly abducted by state authorities in May 2003 and expelled to South Africa.Website owners, bloggers, and internet users in general are not required to register with the government. However, a July 2010 POTRAZ directive called for all mobile-phone users to register with the government by the end of August 2010, ostensibly to combat crime and threatening or obscene messages or calls.28 In September, POTRAZ announced The law is available at http://www.kubatana.net/docs/legisl/criminal_law_code_050603.pdf.
“Manager Arrested for Insulting the President,” Herald (Zimbabwe), March 2, 2010, available at http://allafrica.com/stories/201003020057.html.