THE STATE OF FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION IN ZIMBABWE: JANUARY 2004 TO MARCH 2005
Freedom of expression and its corollary rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has deteriorated to unprecedented levels in Zimbabwe. Media houses and journalists are operating under severe strain and real threat of closure and harassment. The political opposition and civic organizations perceived to be opponents of the ruling party and government are not allowed room to freely organize and publicly promote their positions on issues of national interest. These rights can only be exercised at the benevolence of the government, and very often, this privilege is enjoyed by the state controlled media and civic organizations aligned to the ruling party and government.
There are several laws on Zimbabwe’s statute books that impinge on freedom of expression. Among others, they include the Official Secrets Act (OSA), Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA), the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) and the Access to Information and protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA). Most of these laws contain flagrant violations of constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression.
POSA and OSA are selectively applied by the police to disrupt and ban meetings organized by civil society and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), thus violating their right to freedom of information, association and assembly. For example, MMPZ findings from reported violations in the media between January 1 and December 31 2004 revealed that a total of 127 violations out of which the police were responsible for 60 and the ruling ZANU PF for 46. Between them, the police and ZANU PF disrupted 27 MDC public meetings. ZANU PF was implicated in 27 other incidents targeting the MDC and its supporters with intimidation and threats, often accompanied by violence, for merely identifying with their party.
MMPZ findings for the first quarter of 2005 also revealed similar trends. Of the 82 reported violations, the police were again the group most frequently responsible for violating these rights, being implicated in 36 incidents, 28 of which were against the MDC. ZANU PF was implicated in 25 incidents, 22 of them against the MDC. The violations included disruption of the party’s public meetings and rallies, and the tearing down of its campaign posters. Thus the MDC’s capacity to operate effectively as a lawfully registered political party was diminished, while its supporters lived in fear of attack by those who were rarely arrested for their crimes. Ironically, the police who should protect them were active participants in subverting their constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association. By contrast there was no reported incident in which the police banned or disrupted a ZANU PF meeting or rally.
At the end of 2004 and the beginning of 2005, government’s tendency towards a police state was evidenced by the arrest of individuals under POSA for comments that were deemed to have “insulted” the President or “undermined” his authority. By the end of March 2005 four individuals had been arrested, tried and convicted for this crime. This has undermined the public’s right to freely exchange ideas and to censure public institutions like the presidency that are supposed to serve their interests.
AIPPA arbitrarily curtails freedom of expression, by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on the practice of journalism that turn it into a privileged activity. The law vests excessive power in the government appointed Media and Information Commission (MIC) to determine who can and cannot practice journalism or register a media organisations and for how long. In addition, both AIPPA and the BSA impose stringent licensing conditions that effectively paralyze the development of private media. AIPPA imposes heavy criminal penalties for minor administrative offences, which are often selectively applied against the private media.
For example, under AIPPA the MIC has shut down four private newspapers, The Daily News, The Daily News on Sunday in September 2003; The Tribune in June 2004 and The Weekly Times in February 2005. The Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) has not licensed a single private broadcaster six years after the Supreme Court ruling striking down the state broadcaster’s monopoly as unconstitutional. As a result a de facto monopoly still persists. Both the MIC and BAZ are staffed by government appointees in contravention of the 2002 African Commission’s fact-finding mission’s report recommending that any mechanism that regulates access to broadcast media should be accountable to the public to reduce susceptibility to “control and political patronage”.
In addition, the private media has borne the brunt of most of the extra-judicial impediments (intimidation, harassment, threats, arrests, assaults etc) to the exercise of media freedom. For example, MMPZ observations from reported violations in 2004 revealed a total of 48 violations against media freedom. The police were implicated in 17 of them resulting in the arrest (and in some cases assault) of 27 lawfully registered journalists by the police for merely doing their job, i.e., gather and disseminate news to the public but none was convicted. This also demonstrates government’s widespread use of the police to violate freedom of expression.
Similar patterns were observed between January 1 and March 30 2005. There were 17 violations reported and government was implicated in seven mostly related to its refusal to accredit foreign media organizations and journalists from observing the March 31 2005 general elections. Government also resuscitated charges under AIPPA against 45 former Daily News staffers of practicing journalism without registration. This offence carries a criminal penalty of up to two years in prison. The police were implicated in five cases most of which involved the harassment of journalists who were legally entitled to practice journalism in the country. The MIC was conspicuous by its silence. Such actions by the police defeat the purpose of registering under the MIC if such registration does not protect them from unjustified harassment.
Despite recommendations by the African Commission’s fact-finding mission of 2002 that laws infringing freedom of expression be repealed or amended, government enacted the Criminal (Codification and Reform) Act in June 2005 that further erodes free expression. The law imposes more severe criminal penalties for journalists or individuals who publish or publicly make statements that are “prejudicial to the state” or “undermine the authority of or insulting” the President. Anyone found guilty of making statements prejudicial to the state for example is liable to a fine or up to 20 years in prison or both fine and a jail sentence. This law makes the practice of journalism a hazardous profession and encourages self-censorship.
Finally, nothing demonstrates Zimbabwe’s slide towards a totalitarian state than the recent Constitutional Amendment (Number 17) Act, especially the amendment to Section 22 of the country’s constitution, which provides for the imposition of restrictions on Zimbabweans’ freedom of movement “in the national interest, or in the interests of defence, public safety, public order, public morality, public health, the public interest or the economic interests of the State”. The clause is a cynical move by government aimed at curtailing the free movement of human rights defenders and their right to freedom of association and expression. It also shows government’s determination to operate in secrecy by monopolizing all channels of communication in order to suffocate dissent to its errant policies.
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