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Of “Communication Devices”-Are we going back to the Stone Age?

22 Feb

Stone age era…

In the olden days, there were no radios, neither were there telephones and I am sure if anyone had foretold that an age would come when people could talk to each other, seeing each other’s faces on surfaces that look like the deep clear waters of a still pond, -the people of old would have dismissed this as mere falsehoods or witchcraft. The telephones came with the long code linked to the post and telecommunications poles then came the radios. The cell phones came, huge as bricks at first (Ericson’s, Nokia 5110 and 6210) then small enough to fit into the palms (Nokia 3410,3310), then tiny (Nokia 1100,1110) and then they grew big again but this time they were predicted to be smarter than those who owned them (the age of Apple iPhones ).  I thought and believed all these were wonderful innovations that would allow information to flow easily, accurately, quickly. Indeed it is owing to smart phones that citizen journalism has found its best expression via blogs, twitter, facebook, etcetera etcetera…

Moving on to the present…in Zimbabwe…

The current Zimbabwean Constitution (as agreed upon on 21 December 1979 at Lancaster House in London and amended 19 times by the Parliament of Zimbabwe) has its own weaknesses. However, the absence of protections of freedom of speech and the media is NOT one of those weaknesses. Section 20 (1) of the Constitution clearly provides for the protection of every citizen’s entitlement to receive and impart information without any interference. Who then would have dreamt that on the eve of the 89th birthday of the President of Zimbabwe, Zimbabweans would wake up to be told that radios are now deemed ‘illegal’ or that modern technology such as smart phones is now labelled as “subversive tools” aimed at “communicating hate speech?” Whose imagination could have conjured thoughts of radios and cellphones being banned?

Are the actions of the police legal…

Two things need to be interrogated in this case. First we need to establish if owning a radio is prohibited under Zimbabwean law and second assess the efficacy of the argument that the police are putting forward for the confiscation of radios and smart phones; namely that these gadgets are being used to disseminate “false” information. This is not only critical, but prudent too given that a sizeable chunk of the population is now questioning whether it is now a crime to own a radio and whether it is wise to own ‘smart’ phones, particularly for the rural folk.

Of communication devices…

It is clear that there is no legal provision under Zimbabwean law that prohibits ownership of a radio. For a moment let us assume that the “communication devices” are “broadcasting apparatus” as provided for in the Broadcasting Services Act, which defines them as “apparatus constructed or adapted for use in transmitting or receiving broadcasting services.” Let us also assume that the reason why the radios are being confiscated is that they broadcast information on Short Wave frequency from radio stations that have not been approved or given permission to broadcast in Zimbabwe by the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe. I fail to see how the actions of the police can be seen as a legal action, even with this scenario. The Act prohibits the “establishment or erection of broadcasting apparatus which is not of a class, type or standard approved by the broadcasting Authority for use.” If we go the legalese way can owning a radio be equated with establishing or erecting a “broadcasting apparatus?” I think not.

Assuming that I am wrong in my interpretation and owning a radio IS “erecting a broadcasting apparatus” could the intention and purpose of the legislators in crafting this provision have been to micro-manage the types of radios that people and organisations or businesses bring into their homes and offices.  If the answer is yes and the Act is interpreted in this manner then the police have a blanket 365 day/24 hour warrant of search and seizure in people’s private homes to ensure that any radio that broadcasts short wave radio including the old gramophone that my father and I used back then in 1993 to listen to BBC World News every morning goes into the “safe” hands of the state. Surely such blanket powers of entry into, and search and seizure of private property would be ultra vires the Constitution in particular provisions protecting individuals from arbitrary search and seizure.

Operating illegal stations…

Let us also assume that the police argue their case differently and say that the Broadcasting Act prohibits the operation of a signal transmitting station on a broadcasting service band which is not approved by the Broadcasting Authority and we assume that short wave radio is one of those service bands that are prohibited, would the confiscation of the radios be reasonably justifiable in a just society? It seems pretty clear to me that what the Act prohibits is the “OPERATION” of broadcasting service bands such as radio stations without being given permission to do so. Is ownership of a radio that receives information from such a service band “operating” the service band? I think not because whether or not radios are confiscated from individuals who could access that particular service, the confiscation will not render the service inoperational, hence that action of confiscating a radio cannot be justified as a means of putting the service band out of operation.

Mere intimidation and abuse of power…

The reality is that the police confiscated mere radios that receive information that is being passed through the airwaves. Firstly, the individual who owns it has no control over what is broadcast on the different available channels. Surely the responsibility of what information is imparted lies with the service provider in this case the broadcaster from where the transmission originates.  Secondly,the individual who owns the radio has no way of imparting the information that they have received via the radio using the radio itself, unless they do so by word of mouth hence in that instance the radio device cannot be construed as a two way communication device, can it? Thirdly, it would seem quite conclusive that confiscating the radio from the individual who is at the receiving of the channel of communication is therefore as futile and as misguided as cutting a branch to destroy a tree. It appears the motive in confiscating the radios was not guided by any legal basis but was a mere confirmation of the exigencies of limitless power by a powerful force that is unregulated.

If we choose to deem the actions of the police legal and buy into their argument that the “devices” are being used to broadcast “false information” then would that also justify the confiscation of all televisions and satellite dishes and the closure of the Multi-choice offices in Zimbabwe where BBC NEWS, CNN, Sky News and such other television stations release information that consistently contradicts government positions and which information is persistently dismissed in state media as “falsehoods”?

Radios as threats to peace and security…

The Rwandan genocide bears witness to how a radio can be used as a medium for transmitting hate speech that could lead to instability and conflict. Hate speech is defined as language, which by its very nature is intended to excite hostility and public contempt for individuals or groups against whom verbal attacks through disparaging the social group or member. Hate speech is used to systematically undermine and subjugate the reputation of identified victims through the use of insulting and offensive language. However the issue remains that the responsibility of the transmission of hate speech is not with the radio -“the transmission device” that broadcasts such information but the radio station “the source of transmitted information.” Confiscating the radio would not change the content that continues to be broadcast by the source of the hate speech.

Is it hate speech…

The question is; in the Zimbabwean scenario, when an alternative (read non-state aligned) radio station or newspaper or television station publishes TRUE INFORMATION that discredits the sitting government in the eyes of the general public, is that hate speech? And while we are on the topic of hate speech, would it not be prudent for the police to also follow up and ensure confiscation of “broadcasting apparatus” from radio and television stations that call other citizens “sellouts” “puppets” or “traitors.” Maybe, just maybe if these words would not conjure images of burning bodies, disfigured and amputated arms and legs, and lashed backs-images of the fate of individuals perceived to be “sellouts” and “traitors,” “vatengesi,” “abatakhati” during the liberation struggle (as narrated by my revolutionary family), maybe then they would not appear to incite violence and hatred now. Many a woman have reported that they have been labelled “so and so’s prostitutes” as they were raped for holding certain political opinions, is that not hate speech? The MMPZ has also issued a detailed analysis of incidents constituting hate speech, should the police not be guided by this report to know where to go to confiscate “communication devices” that feed hate speech? 

This incident makes one thing very clear to me, that it was mere rhetoric when the Principals pledged in the Global Political Agreement to “create an environment of tolerance and respect among Zimbabweans, and that all citizens are treated with dignity and decency irrespective of age, gender, race, ethnicity, place of origin or political affiliation.”

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Posted by on February 22, 2013 in Democracy, Governance, Zimbabwe

 

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