Cases of human rights violations continue to spiral and the coronavirus outbreak seems to have given authorities a perfect opportunity to silence dissent.
After President Emmerson Mnangagwa ordered a three-week lockdown starting from March 30, which has since been extended by two weeks, the government issued a number of edicts presumably crafted to protect public health.
The government issued statutory instrument 83 of 2020 ostensibly to protect the reputations of individuals, who work on behalf of the state to manage the spread of the coronavirus or Covid-19 in Zimbabwe.
It has been noted by institutions such as Misa Zimbabwe, however, that the legal instrument is more about restricting free expression and fair comment about the state actors than about actually reducing the spread of inaccurate information.
The history of Zimbabwe in the past two decades is replete with such abuses of the law as many citizens were dragged before the courts on ridiculous charges of insulting former president Robert Mugabe.
In this past week, a Chipinge man was arrested on charges of undermining the authority of the president after he allegedly circulated a message on WhatsApp comparing measures taken by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his South African counterpart Cyril Ramaphosa to fight the coronavirus epidemic.
The law enforcement agents deemed it a serious crime for the man to hold an opinion that Mnangagwa was faring badly in handling the crisis compared to Ramaphosa.
There would be more bizarre cases as Zimbabwe continues to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and they would be more about eroding checks on the ruling elite’s power than preserving public health.
According to Misa Zimbabwe, more than 15 cases of arrests, harassment and assault of journalists have been recorded since the lockdown began.
The journalists were accused of operating with expired accreditation cards or violating the lockdown regulations.
Courts had to intervene for security forces to allow journalists to do their jobs without any interference.
There are many other recorded incidents where citizens’ rights were violated by security forces under the guise of enforcing the lockdown regulations, including savage beatings of people in high-density suburbs.
The government has also taken advantage of the lockdown to destroy structures of poor Zimbabweans trying to earn a living through informal businesses in scenes reminiscent of the infamous Operation Murambatsvina of 2005.
Authorities must be reminded that enforcement of regulations to protect public health can never be an excuse to trample on citizens’ rights.
The constitution guarantees every Zimbabwean’s rights to freedom of speech and expression and those rights are inalienable.