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Data privacy furore over campaign texts erupts in Zimbabwe

By , Sub Saharan Africa Business, Tech, News and Development Journalist
Zimbabwe , 18 Apr 2023

Digital rights campaigners in Zimbabwe are pleading with the government to enforce data protection laws and protect citizens from an alleged abuse by the governing party, Zanu PF.

Ahead of the elections in August, President Emerson Mnangagwa's political party has been texting residents, asking them to join campaign groups on WhatsApp platforms.

Mnangagwa, who is 80 years old, will be facing the youthful opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, who is 45, in the poll.

As the election nears, political parties have upped their communications, which has led to unsolicited messages being sent out, which has irked digital rights campaigners.

Nompilo Simanje, Africa lead for advocacy and partnerships at the International Press Institute, raised a concern that, `citizens in Zimbabwe, journalists included, have been receiving unsolicited messages’ from one of the political parties.

"This indicates that the government and the political party have access to personally identifying information of citizens. Due to the highly targeted nature of the messages, it is our hope that journalists are not exposed to any form of harm and that such messages do not promote self-censorship," she told ITWeb Africa in an interview.

Mnangagwa's government, which has become unpopular because of poor economic performance since he took over from the late former leader, Robert Mugabe, is using social media to woo voters.

Zanu PF has a strong social media presence on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and now wants to utilise the WhatsApp platform to push campaign messages, say digital rights campaigners.

The government says it will enforce data protection regulations to protect personal information such as mobile numbers.

The Posts and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (Potraz) said this week that `data privacy and security are a top priority’, especially ahead of elections this year.

Said Potraz: "Consumers still fear unauthorised use of sensitive data. As a result, consumers want increased control over their personal data, and telecommunications companies."

The Zimbabwean telecom industry regulator has also committed to `implement the data protection act that was promulgated in 2022’ by Mnangagwa.

Despite these efforts, the main opposition, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), is pressing for the respect of personal privacy data by the government.

"We urge the stakeholders in Zimbabwe to promote data privacy and also ensure that citizens have access to independent and diverse information during elections," lawyer and spokesperson for CCC, Fadzai Mahere, told ITWeb Africa yesterday.

She said the CCC condemns `the unlawful abuse of citizens’ personal data’ by ZANU PF.

"The text messages that are sent in the name of President ED Mnangagwa violate s12 (1) of the Data Protection Act (Cap 11:22), which says the use of personal and biometric data in this way is prohibited unless our consent to such use is first given in writing."

Some of the people receiving the text messages, including members of other political parties, did not give ZANU PF `the consent to abuse our data’ in this way.

"The illicit text messages raise serious concerns that ZANU PF has a copy of the voters’ roll that other political parties have been denied," said Mahere.

The ruling party did not comment.

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