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Freedom of expression and the 2005 parliamentary elections
International Bar Association (IBA)
Extracted from the IBA Human Rights Violations in Zimbabwe supplement
December 10, 2004

This article was written by a Zimbabwean journalist who wishes to remain anonymous as he was denied accreditation by Zimbabwe’s Media and Information Commission. He travels to South Africa regularly in search of freelance assignments.

A free and fair election will be impossible next year if the current political climate is allowed to persist. All manner of Zimbabweans’ fundamental human rights have been so badly eroded that most of their civil and political liberties exist only in the most vestigial form.

The greatest casualty of all has been Zimbabweans’ constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression and its subsidiary rights to receive and impart information without hindrance. The country’s independent media have borne the brunt of this sustained onslaught to silence criticism of the government, while the national public media have been hijacked by the ruling party to disseminate a relentless tidal wave of propaganda portraying a favourable image of government’s policies and performance, and to malign the political opposition and those individuals and organisations that have publicly objected to government’s abuse of power.

Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act
The main instrument used to gag free expression in the country is the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA), which essentially turns the business of gathering and disseminating news – the practice of journalism – into a privilege, which is itself controlled under the Act by excessively restrictive clauses that carry heavy criminal penalties. This anti-democratic law has been used to close down the country’s most popular daily newspaper The Daily News, for what amounts to the petty administrative offence of failing to register with a government-appointed media and information commission. Its sister Sunday paper suffered the same fate, and another weekly newspaper, The Tribune, was also ordered to close earlier this year for similarly trivial reasons. The authorities have also used this law, among others, to arrest and harass scores of journalists with the clear intention of discouraging them from investigating and reporting on the excesses of government.

Broadcasting Services Act
There are other, equally restrictive laws that also affect freedom of expression and the operations of the media. For example, the Broadcasting Services Act (BSA) ostensibly allows for other broadcasting entities, but contains so many restrictive clauses that it is virtually impossible for private investors to establish independent broadcasting companies. Four years after that ruling Zimbabwe Broadcasting Holdings still enjoys a defacto monopoly of the airwaves which the governing party has ruthlessly exploited to malign the political opposition and its critics, particularly at election time. And although the broadcasting authority of Zimbabwe has recently invited applications for more broadcasters, there are no illusions that government is about to grant equitable access to the airwaves.

Public Order and Security Act
The Public Order and Security Act, primarily intended to restrict Zimbabweans’ freedom of assembly and association, also provides severe sentences for those ridiculing the presidency and the uniformed forces. And now a new law makes provision for a jail term of up to 20 years for simply ‘communicating’ certain falsehoods.

Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill
The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill makes it a criminal offence to communicate ‘to any other person a statement which is wholly or materially false with the intention, or realising that there is a real risk, of inciting or promoting public disorder or public violence or endangering public safety or adversely affecting the defence and economic interests of Zimbabwe, or undermining public confidence in a law enforcement agency, the Prison Service or the Defence Forces of Zimbabwe; or interfering with, disrupting or interrupting any essential service’. Another clause also makes it an offence for any citizen, either in Zimbabwe or outside the country, to make an ‘abusive, indecent or obscene statement’ about the presidency, even if it is true. This frighteningly Draconian piece of legislation is certain to silence potential sources of information who will be terrified of falling foul of the law by ‘communicating’ information that cannot be substantiated.

Government activity unchallenged
Faced with such viciously repressive instruments, the independent media have no chance of fulfilling their role as watchdogs of government activity. Nor will they be able to report on the partisan activities of the police force and other security agencies, which continue to persecute the political opposition and critics of government. Worse still, independent media workers continue to be subjected to illegal intimidation and harassment by ruling party supporters and other shadowy quasi-government agencies.

For example, large parts of the country were closed to the distribution of independent newspapers in the countdown to the 2002 presidential election and the parliamentary election before that. This remains the case today. Thousands of copies of newspapers were destroyed, and vendors and readers alike were attacked and terrorised. In one instance a reader was even killed allegedly because he possessed a copy of The Daily News.

Such incidents clearly illustrate the vulnerability of the private media and the power of the govern ment’s propaganda machine, which continues to spew hate messages that dehumanise members of the opposition, journalists and many other members of civic society who are brave enough to publicly criticise government.

These conditions make a mockery of the international covenants Zimbabwe has signed – including the SADC election principles and guidelines – guaranteeing and promoting freedom of expression, media diversity and access to infor mation. Unless all these repressive laws are repealed and the violence against the media – and the people of Zimbabwe – is brought to an end well before Election Day, there cannot be any hope for a free and fair election in 2005.

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