GOVERNMENT’S alleged acquisition of spyware targeting journalists and civil society activists will stifle democratic rights and access to information, a report by a United Nations agency has warned.
On 3 May, journalists across the globe observed World Press Freedom Day at a time some countries in the region such as Zimbabwe are being criticised for sliding towards authoritarianism.
According to a United Nations Educational, Science and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) report on the State of Press Freedom in southern Africa, while the internet is increasingly becoming ubiquitous, enhancing the exercise and enjoyment of citizens’ rights to access to information, freedom of expression and the broader democratisation agenda, many governments are turning to surveillance, which threatens the very democratic rights that citizens seek to enjoy.
While the democratising effect of the internet and new technologies is beyond doubt, many governments are turning to surveillance, which threatens democratic rights.
Zimbabwe was named as one of the seven countries that had purchased software from Circles, a surveillance firm that reportedly exploits weaknesses in the global mobile phone system to snoop on calls, texts, and the location of phones around the globe. Circles is affiliated with the NSO Group, whose Pegasus spyware has been widely used to spy on human rights defenders and journalists.
The mobile malware allows state spy agents to track activities on mobile phones without the knowledge and consent of the users.
It also allows them to penetrate applications like WhatsApp which have end-to-end encryption.
“Protecting sources of confidential information is at the heart of journalism,” the report shows.
“In southern Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe are some of the countries that have been reported to have acquired sophisticated software to surveil their citizens. These governments have so far not been transparent about how they intend to use these technologies in the surveillance of their citizens.”
Unesco notes that privacy is a prerequisite for journalists to do their work and ensure access to fact-based and reliable information.
Privacy is necessary for journalists to communicate freely with sources, receive confidential information, investigate corruption, and guarantee their safety and that of their sources.
“A common retort is that surveillance tools will aid in the fight against crime. However, there is need to strike a balance between fighting crime and protecting citizens’ rights, such as the right to privacy and to access information. Building up on last year’s World Press Freedom Day, which recognised information as a public good, in 2022, we can also argue that transparency is a public good,” the report further states.
“Governments should be transparent about what information they collect from citizens and what they intend to use it for. There should always be transparency and accountability backed by judicial oversight on the data that they collect to minimise infringements of citizens’ right to privacy.
“Surveillance of citizens should not be indiscriminate and should serve a clear purpose.”
Among others, Principle 41 of the Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information in Africa provides that states shall not engage in or condone acts of indiscriminate and untargeted collection, storage, analysis or sharing of a person’s communications.
In addition, the International Principles on the Application of Human Rights to Communications Surveillance highlight that any form of surveillance should be guided by the principle(s) of legality, legitimate aim, necessity, adequacy and proportionality.
“If left unchecked, digital surveillance of citizens and, by extension, of journalists is the latest threat to freedom of expression, freedom of the media, access to information and the right to privacy,” the report reads.—STAFF WRITER