OPTF

Dialogues on digital rights: Cyber-surveillance pushed me into exile

This article is a part of a series of pieces commissioned by the OPTF, written by people from all around the world.

Twitter DMs asking for confirmation of my rural home GPS address sounded casual at first. Next came anonymous emails from supposed Oxford professors asking when I’ll be back in my home country. It peaked with the embassy of my country physically stalking me abroad. Once when I was safe in exile, I connected it all. The dots made frightening sense.

I´m Ray Mwareya, an independent journalist from Zimbabwe and a sharp critic of the autocratic regime governing the affairs of my birth country, Zimbabwe. For decades, Zimbabwe has been sanctioned by Australian; EU; Canada; UK and US for electoral fraud; state organized violence against the press and political opposition; unlawful killings and torture.

My own story—working as a journalist, living in Zimbabwe, leaving for Canada in 2018—has much to do with digital repression and cyber-surveillance. Rather ironically, I am a tech rights journalist and delegate to the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa, while also being a victim of the very internet repression that I write about in the global media.

My first bitter taste of cyber-surveillance was in February 2016 while I was a fellow of the Reporters Without Borders Reporter Refugee program in Berlin, Germany. One week I was preparing myself to present a public lecture at the Taz Panther Foundation. Then, out of the blue, I received a curious email: “I’m a visiting Oxford researcher in Zimbabwe who would like to interview you for a PhD thesis, when are you going to return home?”

I was immediately suspicious because the so-called Oxford academic didn’t feature anywhere on Oxford University’s publicly accessible database. I proceeded to present my lecture at the Taz Panther Foundation the following day, blasting my country’s government for its various acts of human rights violations. Immediately after my lecture, five diplomats, who I now believe to be Zimbabwean spies, accosted me and trailed me down to an Irish bar. “Oxford professor, here’s our man,” one of them drunkenly pointed at me.

“So you’re the fake Oxford Prof email?” I demanded, frightened.  

“You´ll die for the state-subversion money you’re getting!” one of the spies blurted. At once they vanished into the night of Potsdam district in Berlin. 

I was shaken to the core. In the morning, for the first time, Reporters Without Borders hired a programmer to teach me about encryption. That’s when, for the first time, I learnt about THOR Project, the global encryption channel to fortify one’s emails and web browsing identity. But before I was going to spend time learning about global encryption networks, I needed to ensure my survival in the real world. My return flight ticket to Zimbabwe was altered. 

My work as a journalist continued in Zimbabwe, and in 2018 after writing sharp articles denouncing the military crackdown on peaceful political opponents, I decamped to Johannesburg, South Africa to escape offline threats against my work. I logged into my email in Johannesburg and found my media articles URL links attached with a severe warning: “You have gone far this time; consider yourself marked. Think we don’t know you are in South Africa?”

The authors of the diabolic email signed themselves off as: “Army tracer bullet.” I was traumatized and immediately made a police report in South Africa. Whilst cooling off, in the evening my very online journalist-to-journalist messaging app was breached. As a journalist I use an app called “Paydesk” to connect with editors seeking work. It’s a media market-place app where editors seek reporters to assign and reporters accept or reject commission via secure, encrypted messaging. A shadow character had contacted me directly: “Hi Ray, you are journalist, I am seeking someone to investigate a corrupt businessman close to Zimbabwe president and expose him in the media. When are you returning home?”

By now, I was definitely aware of the cyber-surveillance modus operandi. This was Zimbabwe military intelligence, posing as investigative editors, luring me via a journalism app to return home and ensnare me. South Africa is within easy reach of Zimbabwe´s vast armory of spies – so with my passport, the following day, I booked a one way flight to Canada, where I was ultimately given protection.

I feel safe in Canada and can breathe a bit. But the pattern of surveillance did not end there. In 2019, when the military in Zimbabwe shot dead in broad daylight half a dozen protesters who were protesting against electoral fraud – I wrote a hard hitting opinion-editorial saying that the subsequent state-led inquiry into the killings is just a smokescreen to sweep matters under the carpet. In the afternoon my op-ed was published, I received an anonymous Twitter DM from a faceless character asking me to confirm my home village in Zimbabwe, the school I attended in the 90s and full name. By now I was fully aware of Zimbabwe spies online tactics. This time the spies mistakenly assumed that I was still living in Zimbabwe. I challenged this wannabe Twitter spy to show their face. They never replied, embarrassed, probably, that I had unmasked their latest attacks. 

Today, I boldly continue my journalism work on tech misdemeanors, Zimbabwe’s own state-sponsored Twitter troll armies, internet darkness in my beloved Zimbabwe, even Uber shenanigans and whether profit-hungry EU and Chinese corporations are competing to sell cyber-security gear to menacing regimes in Africa.

What I have learnt through it all is that cyber-surveillance is first and foremost a life threat to an activist like me. Much unaddressed is that victims of cyber-surveillance also need special trauma to detoxify the devastating experience of being hunted online.

Ray Mwareya, recipient of the 2016 UN Correspondents Association Media Prize, is a tech rights journalist writing for Al Jazeera, Newsweek, Rest of World, China Dialogue, immigrant, activist and sharp critic of the military regime governing his country, Zimbabwe.