The government notice hit social media as soon as President Robert Mugabe announced he had set up a new ministry responsible for Cyber Security, Threat Detection and Mitigation.
Zimbabweans reacted with customary humour to the letter, which faked the signature and letterhead of the newly appointed cyber minister – Patrick Chinamasa – and instructed all WhatsApp group members to register with the ministry by November. The letter was signed “By The Cyber Powers Vested In Me”.
But the jokes have since subsided, and Zimbabweans are now considering what the new ministry will mean for their civil liberties – especially freedom of speech.
President Robert Mugabe’s spokesperson, George Charamba, says Mr Mugabe came up with the idea of a new ministry to deal with an “emerging threat to the state… a threat founded on abuse and unlawful conduct”. But others say the government’s stance is a threat to civil liberties.
One communications rights group, the Zimbabwe chapter of the Media Institute for Southern Africa (Misa), says this new scrutiny of social media goes against the spirit of the constitution and freedom of expression. “These unfortunate threats have resulted in self-censorship by [individuals] when engaging on topical issues affecting the country,” it said in a statement.