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NGO Bill - Index of Opinion and Analysis
Over New Law Extends Beyond Zimbabwe's Borders
Inter Press Service (IPS)
August 30, 2004
HARARE - A proposed
new law that’s set to curtail the activities of non-governmental organisations
(NGOs) in Zimbabwe has grabbed the attention of many among Southern Africa’s
human rights defenders.
Expected to become law before the end of the year, the NGO bill 2004 makes
it mandatory for all charities, NGOs and community-based associations
to register under a government-controlled authority. Many fear this will
allow the Zimbabwe government to deny accreditation to organisations likely
to question its human rights record.
The proposed legislation chillingly resembles a draconian law that has
all but destroyed critical journalism, resulting in the media watchdog,
Reporters Without Borders, placing Zimbabwe next only to Iraq and Cuba
for its hostile media environment in 2003.
The government has used the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy
Act (AIPPA) under which journalists and media houses have to register,
to deny accreditation to individuals and organisations it is uncomfortable
with. For instance, foreign journalists have been denied registration,
as have two independent newspapers.
In much the same way, should the NGO bill become law, as expected; hundreds
of NGOs will have to register under a government-dominated 15-member council.
Defying the law will attract a jail sentence of up to six months.
But the most far-reaching clause in the proposed law is the requirement
that local NGOs engaged in ‘’governance’’ work - the state’s term for
human rights defenders and civic educators - receive no external funding.
Foreign NGOs involved in such work will not be registered at all.
‘’It’s the kind of bill we wouldn’t expect at this time and age, especially
in the context of the overall SADC (the Southern African Development Community)
and African Union protocols,’’ says Abie Ditlakhe, secretary-general of
the Botswana-based SADC NGO Council, an independent association of the
region’s national NGO bodies.
In the last four years, as Zimbabwe’s political climate deteriorated,
following a violent land-reform programme and disputed parliamentary and
presidential elections in 2000 and 2002, human rights and other civic
pressure groups have proliferated. Most survive on outside funding.
To date they have been able to avoid official prying by operating as trusts.
But the majority now faces closure. The result, says lawyer Brian Crozier,
is that ‘’tyranny will continue unchecked by civil society and unobserved
by all except its victims.’’
Concern has extended beyond Zimbabwe’s borders to neighbouring states
where lobbying against the new law is taking place. But the government
says the legislation is essential for national security, to protect the
southern African country from ‘’foreign values’’ championed by ‘’local
Hassen Lorgat of the Johannesburg-based South African Non-Governmental
Organisations Council (SANGOCO) likens the bill to South Africa’s apartheid-era
He says NGOs in the SADC region are in agreement that there’s no problem
with regulation in itself. But they disapprove the proposed law ‘’in a
context of violence and the systematic violations of human rights, as
is the case of Zimbabwe…’’
Lorgat adds SANGOCO is disseminating information about the proposed law.
It’s also organising a summit in Johannesburg late September ‘’to tackle
issues of human rights violations as a whole in Zimbabwe and (also) in
Zimbabwean civil society lobbied heads of state and government gathered
for a summit of the 13-member Southern Africa Development Community (SADC)
in Mauritius earlier this month.
In a statement, the largest NGO umbrella organisation in Zimbabwe, the
National Association of Non-governmental Organisations (NANGO), said the
proposed law criminalises a sector that’s providing safety nets to a lot
of communities hit-hard by social, economic and political turmoil. It
warned the bill had implications on illegal cross-border trading, economic
refugees and increased prostitution as well as the spread of HIV-AIDS.
Ditlakhe says he has received many calls from many coalitions in different
countries, enquiring about the bill and what to do about it. The council
would send a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe that would seek to build
on the representations already done by civil society within the country.
Analysts, many of whom have described the law as oppressive and unconstitutional,
say the proposed law is aimed at paving the way for the ruling ZANU-PF
party to steal next March’s parliamentary elections.
"It’s all about elections," says Brian Kagoro, chairman of Harare-based
Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition, a collection of civil society organisations.
He says with the independent press all but emasculated, the new law is
meant to ensure the elections take place with no local or international
NGOs to contradict a victory for President Robert Mugabe’s party.
‘’This will wholly prevent any outside NGO from monitoring elections in
Zimbabwe unless explicitly invited by the Zimbabwe government,’’ Lorgat
Violence, intimidation and coercion, mainly through the use of food, have
characterised most elections since 2000.
However, discouraged by what it has termed an uneven playing field, the
main opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) announced this week
it will not participate in elections until political space has been opened
up. It said although the Zimbabwe government is a signatory to the new
SADC protocol on elections, the party’s executive does not believe the
government acted in good faith and consequently harbours serious doubts
as to the government’s commitment to enforcing the electoral standards
contained in the protocol.
But the implications of the proposed NGO Act extend beyond elections.
For instance, ‘’foreign non-governmental organisations that are providing
food aid will not be able to continue doing so unless they are charities
which have no interest whatsoever in governance,’’ Crozier points out.
Despite official claims of a bumper harvest, independent assessments say
about 2.2 million rural Zimbabweans need food aid this year.
Crozier says the definition of NGO makes no distinction between non-profit
and profit organisations. It is ‘’extremely wide and covers associations
and institutions with every conceivable type of object.’’ These, he says,
range from medical and veterinary practices (unless they are one-person)
concerns, to pension funds and sports clubs.
Exempted by the new law will be trade unions and churches "in respect
of activities confined to religious work". Crozier says the Jesuits, for
example, will have to register their society if they are to continue running
schools and providing education in secular subjects.
The Zimbabwe Red Cross Society and other associations will also be exempt
as will political parties, but only "in respect of work confined to political
If, the new law is passed by the ruling party-dominated parliament in
October, it will replace the present Private Voluntary Organisation Act.
Ironically, NGOs had for long complained that the existing law is draconian,
in that it gives too much power to the Minister of Labour, Manpower Planning
and Social Welfare to interfere in their activities.
The new legislation entrenches ministerial authority. The minister may
dissolve any NGO where he sees fit as well as rule on appeals brought
by aggrieved registered NGOs.
Kagoro says the law will increase the number of voices skeptical of Zimbabwe’s
recovery. ‘’It will not do any good to the government’s image even within
Africa,’’ he says.
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