Charamba and Mutsvangwa WhatsApp exchange reveals need for clear govt and party Social Media and Social Networking Policy

Malvern Mkudu and Arthur Chatora

The story of WhatsApp exchanges between War Veterans minister Christopher Mutsvangwa and Presidential spokeperson George Charamba has exposed a number of issues in the government, which ought to be discussed.

Firstly, that factionalism had reached a crescendo in the ruling party Zanu PF and it is surely spilling into the government.
Secondly, that the government has no social media policy or if it does it’s a poor one and it is being disregarded.

Thirdly, that the lack of this social media policy could constitute a national security threat.
That Minister Mutsvangwa and Charamba engage in a WhatsApp discussion concerning government operations is concerning. Such conversations normally occur in private offices.

These engagements have their roots in the factional fights within Zanu PF. The accusations against Charamba that the Presidential spokesperson and other people who work closely with the President caused the President unnecessary embarrassment through their negligence are quite telling.

While it is plausible that the President reading the wrong speech was a mistake, and mistakes are common, however, the saga was probably blown out of proportion to suit certain political agendas.

What is worrying is that two senior government officials took to an instant messaging platform to discuss government business. It’s possible that one of them subsequently leaked the conversation.

The leak has far reaching consequences on the government and party and raises fundamental questions. What else and with who do high ranking public officials discuss on instant messaging platforms and social media? Could government ministers on WhatsApp be discussing sensitive state security issues?

If either of them could leak this conversation, it is plausible to question what else they discuss and possibly leak on these platforms? If Mutsvangwa and Charamba did not leak this conversation, one could assume that they possibly left their mobile phones unattended or these phones were hacked, both suppositions with serious implications on lack of security on devices of public officials. It should be noted that WhatsApp has been a victim of session hijacking and packet analysis, which places serious importance on matters of security and privacy in usage of this platform.

Such lax behaviour exposes a government that is not conversant with new technologies. The question to pose is, are state secrets and information of national security are safe if their custodians communicate and share sensitive issues on social media?

Charamba works with President Mugabe almost on a daily basis and knows intimate and confidential issues. Now, if President’s secretary discusses government business on social media and instant messaging platforms and then (possibly) leaks the conversations, one could argue that state secrets and government information may not be properly safeguarded.

This spat although juicy exposed a government that has no ICT policy particularly a social media policy. One wonders how the government monitors the use of social media and instant messaging in its ranks. What this means is information could be coming and out of the country without the state knowing what’s going on.

It will be interesting to see how the government will act on the two. Will the party and government sanction the two for discussing matters of the president’s office on social media?

Most importantly government must craft an ICT, Social Media and Social Networking Policy. The government and all political parties ought to take a leaf from other governments and political parties globally and regionally with clearly spelt out rules and guidelines. The policies describe the official and non official use of social media and social networking tools and applications.

For example, the U.S government has a clearly defined Social Media and Social Networking Policy with guiding principles and “Applicable Laws, Regulations, and Policies”. The policy delineates the official use of Social Media and Social Networking and non-official/personal use of Social Media and Social Networking for government departments and employees.

Closer to home, the South Africa government has Social Media Policy Guidelines, created in 2011, whose purpose is “to create awareness of some of the opportunities that social media presents for government, as well as making government agencies and staff aware of how to manage the risks associated with the use of this kind of technology”.

Similarly, political parties need to draw up clear guidelines for employees on what they can and cannot say about the organisation. It should be remembered that the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) received some flak over the allegations that its leader Morgan Tsvangirai sought to regulate the use of social media platforms and issued an “order that any WhatsApp group administered by anyone who is an MDC member without exception, be shut down”. While Tsvangirai was heavily criticised for attempting to stifle free speech, what became apparent was the lack of understanding of institutional rules and regulations which govern how members of an organisations ought to behave and abide by set Social Media guidelines.

To explain the order, MDC National Spokesperson, Obert Gutu wrote that, “Party members are free to use social media in accordance with the guidelines and standards that are being set up by the party leadership. Social media platforms should not be abused to promote hatred, division, gossiping and rumour -mongering”.

While Zanu PF, the MDC and other political parties do not have a discernible Social Media and Social Networking Policy other political parties in the region have clearly spelt out policies, for example the Democratic Alliance (DA) in South Africa has a policy, “to help clarify how best to enhance and protect personal and professional reputations of DA public representatives”.

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