Rapapa to amend snooping law

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Bereng Mpaki | ‘Marafaele Mohloboli

COMMUNICATIONS, Science and Technology Minister Samuel Rapapa has promised to amend the discredited proposed draconian snooping law aimed at giving the government overweening powers to monitor the private communications of citizens.

This after various stakeholders, including the Lesotho Communications Authority (LCA), recently told the Prime Minister’s Ministries and Departments, Governance, Foreign Relations and Information Cluster committee that they were not consulted in the drafting of the repressive regulations.

Styled the Communications (Identity Module and Mobile Device Regulation) Regulations, 2021, the proposed law was tabled by All Basotho Convention (ABC) Hlotse legislator, Keketso Sello, during his time as Communications, Science and Technology minister in March this year. It was later gazetted in June.  It caused an outcry because of the overarching powers it gave to the government, via the LCA, to monitor private communications of citizens.

The bill sought to empower the state to fully monitor cyberspace, define cybercrimes and prescribe penalties that include fines and lengthy prison sentences. It sought to establish a central database, with details of citizens, to be run by the government. Not only would citizens, including visitors, be required to register their sim cards, they would also be required to register their communication devices as well as storing their biometrics in the database.

The central database was to be established and maintained by the LCA and it “shall be the property of the government of Lesotho”.

“The database shall provide a platform for the central processing and storage of subscribers’ information.

“The database shall be segregated across network services in such a manner as to ensure easy access to data by authorised persons in respect of subscribers’ information,” the gazette stated.

According to the regulations, subscribers should not only register their SIM cards, they must also be required to register their mobile devices including cell phones, tablets, iPads and any other mobile device which can take a SIM card.

This was an unprecedented move as other countries, including South Africa, only require users to register their SIM cards and not mobile devices.

Another unprecedented measure was the requirement for foreigners on international roaming services in Lesotho to be registered as well.

Besides the already cumbersome requirement for subscribers of mobile communications services to register mobile devices, they also had to present their biometric details.

The regulations also required all mobile communication services providers and providers of mobile devices to take down people’s biometric details along with proof of residence before handing them over to the LCA for storage in the central database system.

Last week, the parliamentary portfolio committee recommended the scrapping of the law to allow more consultations to be made with various stakeholders.

Among the key stakeholders whose input should have been sought are security agencies like the Lesotho Defence Force (LDF), Lesotho Mounted Police Service (LMPS), the National Security Service (NSS) and the Lesotho Correctional Service (LCS).

The proposed law came under the spotlight in parliament this week and various legislators took turns in slamming the government’s failure to fully consult before gazetting it.

Tabling his report on the regulations, the chairperson of the Prime Minister’s Ministries and Departments, Governance, Foreign Relations and Information Cluster, Lehloka Hlalele, said there was need for wide stakeholder consultations to ensure that all stakeholders’ inputs were included in the subordinate law.

Mr Hlalele, who is a Democratic Congress (DC) proportional representation legislator, said the committee was also not convinced about the readiness of the network operators to establish a central database.

He urged the review of the proposed six months’ timeframe for the registration of SIM cards.

“Based on the above observations and concerns, the committee resolved to disallow the Communications (Subscriber Identity Module and Mobile Device Registration) Regulations, 2021 for the Minister to reassess the regulations,” Mr Hlalele said this week.

Seconding the motion to throw out the regulations, Democratic Party of Lesotho (DPL)’s leader Limpho Tau, said even the LCA, which was supposed to be the custodian of the law, had said they had not been consulted in the formulation of the regulations.

“It is embarrassing that when we invited the LCA for its views on the regulations as their custodian, they said they were not included in their development. This shows how flawed the process of developing the subordinate law was,” Mr Tau said.

On his part, Mr Rapapa said although the regulations were necessary to deal with some serious crimes committed through the use of unregistered mobile sim cards, there were some “problems” with the proposed law which could be addressed by making the necessary amendments.

“Based on the interactions we have had with the committee and the written submissions from MISA Lesotho and the network operators, we have resolved to replace the regulations with the amended ones,” Mr Rapapa said.

He said the amendments would consider extending the timeframe given to subscribers to register their sim cards and repeal the requirement for mobile devices to be registered as well.

Mr Rapapa said they would also revisit the provision which gives the LCA powers to access subscribers’ communication without obtaining prior permission from the courts of law.

Opposition Lesotho Congress for Democracy’s (LCD) leader, Mothetjoa Metsing, said the alleged failure to consult the LCA suggested that the ministry wanted to unduly exert its weight on the affairs of the Authority.

“What kind of a message are we sending if the LCA was not consulted in the development of the regulations? Do we give our public institutions the respect they deserve? How is this not political interference?

“Our public institutions must be independent in order to make decisions that serve public interests without any political interference,” Mr Metsing said.

He said it was now up to Mr Rapapa to make the necessary amendments before re-tabling the regulations in parliament.

“We agree with the minister that there can be misuse of mobile devices but that does not warrant ignoring other pertinent issues arising out of the proposed regulation of their usage.

“Having access to subscribers’ private information without seeking the permission of the courts of law could cause us a lot of problems if such information ends up in the wrong hands,” he added.

Gender and Youth, Sports and Recreation Minister Likeleli Tampane, then called on the house to adjourn debate on the portfolio committee’s report.  She said the whole issue was likely to lead to “serious divisions” in the house due to disagreements between Mr Rapapa and the committee as to whether or not the LCA had been consulted in the drafting of the regulations.

“These regulations are supposed to emanate from the LCA but the minister and the committee told two different things. That gives an impression of a serious problem which could lead to divisions among members of this house. For that reason, I propose the debate on the issue to be adjourned,” Ms Tampane said.

The Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Lebohang Ramohlanka, then asked the MPs to decide whether they wanted the debate to be adjourned. The MPs resolved to adjourn. However, no date was set for the resumption of the debate, that is if it will resume at all.

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