By Takura Zhangazha*
The recent arrest and conviction of Madzibaba Chacha, a taylor in Harare, for a picture that made waves on social media brings into focus key questions on the regulation and usage of the internet in Zimbabwe. The background to the case is that Madzibaba Chacha had a picture of himself wearing a Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) uniform (at least the shirt) taken and subsequently sent on social media such as Whatsapp and Facebook. His religious affiliation has been reported to be that of the African Apostolic faith, which has an offshoot sect that has recently been controversial for its violent clashes with the police in Harare's Budiriro suburb. (This would probably explain his quick arrest after the picture emerged on the internet.)
It also turns out he has been convicted by the Magistrates Court for being a criminal nuisance and was fined $100 or three months in prison.
This conviction is significant in two respects. First that one can now be arrested and convicted for what one posts (or is posted on your behalf) on social media especially where and when it relates to government institutions. Secondly, the police and other security services are definitely monitoring social media content and individuals on a regular and actionable basis. This monitoring may not be as advanced as that of the now infamous American National Security Agency (NSA) Prism programme, but it is surveillance all the same.
So the evident warning to social media fanatics is that they must be careful, Zimbabwe’s version of ‘big brother’ is definitely watching (and reading).
There are also larger considerations to understand over this ‘picture portrait’ incident. They initially relate to the legal arena. Madzibaba Chacha was arrested after a picture of himself in part police regalia was taken in his own house. Were that picture not taken and distributed, he would not have been liable to arrest and criminal charges. No one would have known that he wore that uniform except those that were in his house.
Furthermore, while it is a crime to impersonate a security services agent or wear official police/army regalia without authorization, imitations of the same are generally used in the entertainment industry. I do not know the extent to which actors seek permission to do so, but there has been very limited public uproar or evident anger from the police when it has occurred.
The ‘criminal nuisance’ that Madzibaba Chacha became was however based largely on the fact that his picture became a public one via increasingly popular social media. If he had kept the picture to himself, he would not have a criminal record.
If it had become popular via mainstream media, there is no doubt that the editor and journalist of the newspaper that would have broken the story would have been arrested. Or to put it more directly, the medium and messenger would have found themselves answering questions at a police station and probably being charged under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) or the Public Order and Security Act (POSA).
As it is, Madzibaba Chacha’s picture had only the medium of the internet, and social media applications Whatsapp and Facebook. None of which can be charged. Instead they can be shutdown or stopped, if the state deems it necessary to do so. In this case, the state chose to arrest the originator of specific content that was carried via the internet. So the medium (internet/mobile telephony), in the eyes of the state, is not the problem. It is the user of the medium that is viewed with suspicion especially where it relates to content.
What is apparent is that the state is very serious about keeping its finger on social media content. Especially if there is evidence of the originator of that same said content.
This is new territory for the state and its regulation of telecommunications content. Under the Postal and Telecommunications Act, one can be charged for phoning someone and insulting them. In the case under consideration, Madzibaba Chacha did not phone or insult anyone. His was a mere picture of himself. The inference that his religious background and hairstyle were linked to the Budiriro incidents while having been determined by the court that convicted him, is still hard to determine from merely looking at the picture. Had the picture had a caption, it would have been easier to determine its intent. But it didn’t. So the inference is entirely subjective and determined perhaps by political events elsewhere.
The picture may have invoked humour or anger, depending on one’s biases, but it is just that, a picture. It is therefore worrisome that the state reacted in such a heavy handed fashion. It essentially means that Zimbabwean users of social media have to be cautious about what they say or images they post. Where the state is not happy with a specific individual’s post, charges of being ‘criminal nuisances’ can be preferred against you.
*Takura Zhangazha writes in his personal capacity (takura-zhangazha.blogspot.com)