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As Zimbabwe outlaws dissent, citizens fight back

August 17, 2023
tags:#Zimbabwe, #democracy, #political violence, #freedom of speech
by:Cyril Zenda
Zimbabwe's controversial 'Patriotic Bill,' roundly criticised as a blow to democracy, is facing backlash at home. But will it be enough to gut its most extreme provisions?

In June 2010, Farai Maguwu, who was leading the Zimbabwe-based Centre for Research and Development at the time, was arrest and held in detention by Zimbabwean authorities for several weeks. His arrest came after he shared crucial information with a fact-finding mission from the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, the global diamond regulatory body. This information pertained to severe human rights abuses committed by state security agents in the eastern region of the country, where valuable diamond deposits had been discovered.

Maguwu was charged with the offense of "publishing falsehoods against the State with the intent to undermine the nation's security or economic interests."

While the initial charges against Maguwu did not result in a conviction, his subsequent years have been marked by numerous encounters with law enforcement. Currently serving as the executive director of the Centre for Natural Resources Governance (CNRG), a local watchdog organisation focused on natural resources and rights, Maguwu and his team have been actively engaged in researching a wide array of human rights violations. These include cases such as forced displacement of citizens from their ancestral lands, illicit mining in wildlife sanctuaries, mistreatment of locals by Chinese investors and the disclosure of rampant exploitation of Zimbabwe's natural resources, among other issues.

Legislating Patriotism

In an attempt to 'deal' with such 'unpatriotic' citizens, President Emmerson Mnangagwa in July signed into law the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Amendment Bill. commonly referred to as the "Patriotic Bill." This new legislation criminalises anyone caught "willfully injuring the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe," as well as those who participate in calls for economic sanctions against the country, among other actions deemed 'unpatriotic.

Under this law, the potential consequences for actions perceived as detrimental to the nation's interests are severe, ranging from the death penalty to the revocation of citizenship. As a result, individuals like Maguwu and journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who have been dedicated to uncovering government misconduct and abuses, now find themselves navigating a newly created legal landscape fraught with perilous risks.

Despite widespread condemnation from rights groups since the bill's introduction to Parliament in December 2022, President Mnangagwa's ZANU-PF party leveraged its parliamentary majority to push the amendments through. This move has deeply alarmed both local and international rights advocates.

Constitutionality of the Law Challenged

Such are the gravity of the concerns raised by rights groups that the constitutionality of the amendments was promptly challenged in court after they were signed into law.

In an urgent High Court application, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ), a coalition of local media and information rights organisations, teamed up with journalist Zenzele Ndebele to challenge the constitutionality of most sections of the new law.They based their legal action on the law's vagueness and broadness, arguing that these characteristics leave room for misinterpretation and abuse.

MAZ and Ndebele aver that the language used in the law, including terms such as "agents, proxies or entities" of foreign governments, is overly general and therefore unconstitutional. 

"Subverting, upsetting, overthrowing or overturning the constitutional government in Zimbabwe is not defined with sufficient clarity, if at all, and consequently section 22A (2) is imprecise, vague and unconstitutional," the application reads. 

"Section 22 A (2) is broadly worded, constituting a high potential of abuse and misuse and leading to silencing of any dissenting voices and consequently unfair, unreasonable, unnecessary and not justifiable in a democratic society based on openness, justice, human dignity, equality and freedom."

They further stated that criminalising citizens preceived as unpatriotic was unreasonable.

"It is also unnecessarily broad and thereby invading the area of constitutionally protected freedoms, particularly freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and association, and the right to privacy," they argued.

They added that citizens should have an opportunity to be familiarised with the law and to adjust their conduct accordingly.

"Law enforcement officers are likely to interpret the section as broadly as possible, with the real risk or possibility of drag-netting innocent citizens in the process."

‘New Law Necessary’ 

Ndabaningi Mangwana, a government spokesperson, stated that the law, which he insists is the Zimbabwean equivalent of the United States’ Logan Act, was passed in response to calls from citizens concerned about the actions of those who demonise the country and its government. 

"We live in a world where increasingly - due to ease of communications, transportation and social interactions - private citizens are taking matters into their own hands, travelling to other countries as self-appointed ambassadors, meeting foreign officials and undermining national foreign policies and interests," Mangwana wrote in a government-owned weekly.

"Such conduct by self-serving citizens inevitably harms the national interests of governments of sovereign countries by undermining their foreign policy agenda.

"Those individuals or groups who engage in unsanctioned self-serving citizen or private diplomacy and negotiations with foreign sovereign governments not only offend the Constitution but also violate customary international law, which forms part and parcel of our law by virtue of Section 326(1) of the Constitution."

A New Zimbabwe?

When Mnangagwa assumed power through a coup that led to the removal of the late Robert Mugabe, a former authoritarian leader, he pledged to usher in a "new Zimbabwe" for its citizens.

"I am working toward building a new Zimbabwe: a country with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors, and democracy and equal rights for all," Mnangagwa wrote in an opinion piece. "I commit that in the new Zimbabwe, all citizens will have the right of free speech, free expression and free association."

But analysts now stress that these rights are the very same ones that 81-year-old Mnangagwa is rolling back through a growing armor of repressive laws.

"The signing of the ‘Patriotic Bill’ into an Act by the President is a grave attack on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association," noted Khanyo Farisè, Amnesty International’s deputy research director for Southern Africa. "The enactment of the Bill is stronger evidence that the Zimbabwean authorities are bent on further shrinking civic space and silencing dissent."

Broader Geopolitical Ramifications

"In my view, continued misrule in Zimbabwe has some negative impacts at the domestic and regional levels," Lloyd Kuveya, assistant director at the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, told FairPlanet. 

"At the domestic level, people continue to suffer because of the economic crisis and human rights violations. At the regional level, neighbouring countries suffer the burden of taking care of big numbers of migrants from Zimbabwe."

Millions of Zimbabweans have established their lives and livelihoods in South Africa. Among those who were issued special permits to reside in the neighboring nation, some are currently entangled in legal battles to prevent the revocation of these permits. Their argument is that the humanitarian crisis that initially led to the issuance of these permits has only intensified in their home country.

"SADC (Southern African Development Community) states must hold each other accountable and have similar shared values," Kuveya added. 

"If a SADC state is not running affairs according to shared values such as respect for human rights, rule of law, anti-corruption and good governance, they should not be a part of the sub-regional economic community and enjoy the benefits of regional integration," he maintained, stressing that SADC states should be particularly committed to the realisation of economic, social and cultural rights.

Will Zimbabwe's neighbours intervene? 

Piers Pigou, the Southern Africa programme head at the South African-based Institute of Security Studies, stated that the controversial provisions of the new law are unlikely to pass constitutional reviews. He argued, however, that these provisions are already being weaponised and wielded menacingly by the authorities, as demonstrated by the recent threats made by President Mnangagwa towards members of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights.

"Is there anything the region can do? Yes, there is. But will they? [Most likely not], as it will set a precedent that other member states will balk at," Pigou told FairPlanet.

"The politics of non-interference often [stifles] any commentary on how member states fall short in terms of regional standards on issues of democracy, governance and human rights," he added.

"Previously, such challenges could have been taken to the SADC Tribunal, but that court was effectively kyboshed by Zimbabwe and like-minded member states. It seems that legal persecution and repressive governance is now an acceptable practice, and only overt and widespread manifestations of violence will prompt a public response."

Zimbabwe is scheduled to hold elections on 23 August, and many analysts believe that the playing field is heavily skewed in favor of President Mnangagwa and his party.

Pigou said that SADC's election machinery, including its advisory council (SEAC) and observer mission (SEOM), has the capacity to offer a comprehensive assessment of the situation if they apply the SADC election guidelines as their framework.

"[But] Based on past performance, though, we are more likely to see a selective cherry-picking [approach]," he concluded.

Image by Nsey Benajah

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
President Emmerson Mnangagwa. "I am working toward building a new Zimbabwe: a country with a thriving and open economy, jobs for its youth, opportunities for investors, and democracy and equal rights for all."
Embed from Getty Images
"At the domestic level, people continue to suffer because of the economic crisis and human rights violations." Lloyd Kuveya.