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Calculated onslaught on civil liberties

BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU

The gruesome visuals of the violent arrest of journalist Hopewell Chin’ono graphically illustrated the sad state of the human rights situation in Zimbabwe. In a sudden turn of events that one wouldn’t expect in the 21st century, the world woke up to images of unwarranted brutality and disproportionate use of force on the property of a citizen.

Whether the citizen in question had committed crimes doesn’t warrant such brazen destruction of property as even arrested persons have their rights protected under the law.

Within that same week, Zimbabweans woke up to a shock announcement by the country’s highest office of the imposition of a dusk to dawn curfew. This unprecedented development since the last three decades arguably represents the most authoritarian measure that the Zimbabwean government has implemented in intervening against the threat and spread of the Covid-19 global pandemic.

What these developments signify is of concern and the indicators suggest that Zimbabwe is slowly but surely degenerating into total authoritarianism. It is becoming a state in which citizens are treated as subjects. Constitutionally guaranteed rights are being accorded as privileges or mere tokens that are given and withdrawn at the pleasure of the ruling elite.

The Covid-19 pandemic has become a convenient excuse to curtail citizens’ freedoms and although some measures are scientifically backed and justified, there has been a deliberate and systematic onslaught of civil liberties on many fronts, including the targeting of critical media, clamping down on online media, harassment of citizens and using fear as a tool of silencing dissenting voices.

On the legal front, there have been systematic moves to rule the country by decree through the promulgations of statutory instruments. These executive orders, though they are legal instruments, are not tested or debated and neither do they involve public participation. To think that Zimbabwe has an average of at least three executive orders per week since the year began brings to the fore how much power is being vested in one arm of the state.

When the country is not being governed by statutory instruments, most of which obtain ambiguous yet draconian provisions, Parliament is fast-tracking the process of debating laws that have far-reaching consequences on the citizens of the country. In one of this hurried process, Parliament is considering amendments to the country’s supreme law and will also soon be considering a Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill.

The timing of the debates around constitutional amendments and public hearings for the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill are quite telling and there seems to be an appetite to push these through without much civic participation and for these to become law when the nation is under lockdown.

That way, civil society is limited in terms of mobilisation and there will be minimum push back from critical voices given that outside essential service providers, everyone else is expected to be working from home. There is obviously the litigation option, one could argue. The main thrust of such arguments being that should these statutory instruments be inconsistent with the constitution or the amendment process is fundamentally flawed, one should approach the courts for recourse.

After all our courts have made significant rulings, even during the lockdown period and there is a semblance of the respect for the rule of law. This line of thinking is fair. However, when one considers what is obtaining in the country, such arguments become moot.

If there is one institution whose independence and integrity is under threat in Zimbabwe, it is the judiciary. This assertion is not only informed by narrow political arguments that normally dominate social conversations but based on the developments within the judiciary, whether one considers the proposed constitutional amendments or the inconsistencies in terms of the rulings of the same court.

Even more concerning, Chief Justice Luke Malaba issued a bizarre memorandum in which he mandated judges to first seek clearance with his office before passing judgements. In a move that has been widely criticised across the region and beyond, the memorandum suggested some conflation and centralisation of power within the judiciary.

Beyond the legal front, there has been deliberate targeting of journalists and communicators. Media advocacy groups among them the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa Zimbabwe), the Zimbabwe Union of Journalists (ZUJ) and the Zimbabwe National Editors Forum (Zinef) have on different occasions issued alerts documenting the violations against journalists and the media. It is reported that the cases grew exponentially during the national lockdown period.

The media is often a target in dictatorial states as it is an arena of critical discourse. Independent and critical media is normally the worst affected and credible journalism the biggest causality. Instead of critically playing the watchdog role, the media becomes an officialdom arena in which news is determined by what officials, mostly in government whose words are often quoted verbatim and as the gospel truths with little accountability or news that actually empowers citizens to make informed decisions.

In this digital age, the mainstream media is not the only one that is targeted but also online media users, particularly organised digital media outlets and social media influencers. While the online space much as the offline needs systems of accountability and therefore regulation, criminalising freedom of expression should not have any space in a democratic society.

This is why the international community, local and regional civil society organisations are standing in solidarity with the influencers that have been arrested for merely expressing their dissent against government malpractices of corruption and maladministration. Yes, the right to freedom of expression is not absolute but the limitations have to be narrowly defined and are not to the extent of inhibiting the right itself.

Lastly, there is an entrenchment of instilling a culture of fear among citizens, through soft and hard violence. There have been unfortunate reports of brutality in enforcing the lockdown regulations and beyond the Covid-19 safety measures, there is an appetite to cow citizens into submission. The threat of possible imprisonment has to linger on the minds of citizens and the hope for a democratic society is diminishing with each passing day.

Zimbabweans are witnessing a well calculated onslaught on their liberties. The situation has reached another level. Zimbabwe needs all the support she can right now. Yes, the picture is gory now, but our democratic value system as espoused in our Constitution remains intact. We have to live to fight for our rights for another day. Until freedom comes!

The deplorable arrest of Chin’ono should not kill the hopes and aspirations of the people of Zimbabwe.

l Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently serving as the programmes manager of the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe. He can be contacted on +263 772 501 557 or njnya2@gmail.com

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