Policies that mask and promote misrule

“A CRITICAL, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference.”

That was the view of former South African president Nelson Man

dela at a congress of the International Press Institute in 1993. South Africa then was a year from its first democratic all-race election.

Zimbabwe was then playing the role of a midwife in the birth of South Africa as the leader of the Frontline States against apartheid rule in Pretoria. President Mugabe was the darling of the region and the world as a champion of the oppressed.

It is a sad irony and an indictment of how far Mugabe has regressed since then that Mandela’s words were this week quoted to President Thabo Mbeki by the same institute to remind Mugabe of just how far from the path of justice he has strayed. This followed the seizure by Immigration officials last week of Zimbabwe Independent and Standard publisher Trevor Ncube’s passport after he was put on a list of people whose movements should be restricted because they “threaten national interests”.

Not that Mugabe ever laid claim to such lofty liberal ideals like a free press or freedom of movement. But the metamorphosis from a liberation war hero to a paranoid dictator living in a cordon of military security has been spectacular. That transformation has been characterised by a systematic crackdown on dissent within his own party, opposition parties, civics and the press since Independence in 1980. His paranoia and fear have grown in inverse proportion to the deteriorating social conditions of Zimbabweans as the economy has imploded. As his failures have become legion, so has his anger against those exposing the emperor’s nakedness.

President Mugabe promulgated the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act in 2002 making it mandatory for journalists to be accredited and media houses to be registered by government before they could operate. The idea was to strike fear into the hearts of reporters and publishers so that his calamitous misrule could not be exposed.

There is always the threat of being denied accreditation hanging over journalists like the sword of Damocles if they dare speak ill of Mugabe. By refusing to register, the Daily News gave a hostage to fortune, making itself the first casualty of that law in 2003. Four more papers were to follow in quick succession as the economic meltdown accelerated and discontent among Zimbabweans mounted. Foreign journalists were deported in flagrant violation of court orders.

But despite this crackdown the situation appears to be getting worse. While Mugabe’s position in the party and government is assured, at least from outside, this has not been on the back of improved performance on the governance or economic fronts. The pretence to political tolerance witnessed in recent elections is more to do with complacency in the face of a fragmenting opposition than a deliberate widening of the democratic space to accommodate divergent views.

In practice, we are moving in the opposite direction. Mugabe appears to believe that the best way to deal with the country’s problems is to lock up everybody, to transform the country into one big prison. The decision to seize the passports of vocal Zimbabweans perceived as enemies of the state is meant to intimidate and “contain” the wrong information that “tarnishes the image of the country”. After all it is easier to seize the passport of a returning citizen at the port of entry than to build a legal case to shut down a newspaper.

Few people will dare to lose that valuable document which can be seized without the need to explain. Government columnists have confirmed it is meant to have a chilling effect on all critics of the regime. It is the most serious assault yet on the rights of Zimbabweans wherever they are so long as they one day wish to come back home or leave the country to visit family or friends.

The law is all the more devastating in that it hits everyone, not just journalists or those involved in the newspaper industry. Business executives, ordinarily timid in the face of a government exercising paternalistic patronage over all, can now be trusted to die a natural death — that is, never to utter a negative word on government policies and human rights abuses.

Already there is a dangerous pretence in government and business circles that is gaining currency, that those who point out shortcomings in government in fact create them. It is not uncommon to be admonished by business executives against tarnishing the country’s image by, for instance, reporting political violence and thus inhibiting tourism.

In a cynical twist of irony, the “patriots” are those who externalise foreign currency, those who smuggle basic foodstuffs out of the country and those who sell publicly subsidised agricultural fuel on the black market. It is those, in short, who are not too fastidious about ethical conduct in business or in the use of public resources who shall be allowed to keep their passports for as long as they like. Such is the perversity of government policies that mask and promote misrule.

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