One law for Mugabe, another for the press
“FREEDOM of exp
ression constitutes one of the essential foundations of a democratic society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every person. It is applicable not only to information or ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the state or any sector of population. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no democratic society.”
This axiom, drawn from a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights on the importance of free expression to social progress, is well understood in those nations that seek the betterment of their people. It is resisted with ferocity by those that wish to regulate and restrict their populations so they offer no resistance and remain ignorant of their rights.
The arrest and detention of three Zimbabwe Independent journalists last weekend on charges of criminal defamation reflects the insecurity of a regime obsessed with silencing critics of its rule.
The charges stem from a story carried last Friday describing the use of an Air Zimbabwe aircraft by President Mugabe during his holiday in the Far East. It is common cause that the aircraft was used to ferry Mugabe and his family around the region. But the state regards the use of words such as “commandeer” as defamatory. It claims the aircraft was chartered in the normal way.
These are semantics we shall happily deal with in court. What is at issue here is public accountability.
Mugabe must not hide behind offensive colonial laws such as criminal defamation when he is accountable for the use of public funds. He is the nation’s most senior public official and chief recipient of the substantial amounts allocated every year by parliament for the upkeep of those in government service. Whether he likes it or not, newspapers have a duty to see if the public are getting value for money.
It is both the right and the duty of newspapers to subject office-holders to public scrutiny. Air Zimbabwe is a publicly-owned airline. It has been badly managed for years and is now reduced to four operational planes from a fleet of 15 at Independence in 1980.
This is a shocking record and is the direct product of persistent political interference.
Mugabe’s use of Air Zimbabwe aircraft, in whatever capacity, is therefore of legitimate public interest to the taxpayers who fund him.
In attacking this newspaper for carrying the story, Information minister Jonathan Moyo made a number of false statements regarding its ownership. The Department of Information in the Office of the President, which Moyo commands, is in the habit of making such statements that are clearly libellous while fulminating against newspapers that criticise Mugabe.
Moyo described our report as “blasphemous and disrespectful” to the president.
Criminal defamation is a relic of empire, starting its career in English common law, then assuming a Roman-Dutch personality as it travelled through South Africa on its way north. It has been struck down by courts in Commonwealth and former Commonwealth jurisdictions as incompatible with democratic practice. Most recently it has been revoked by Ghana and Sri Lanka.
However, given the attachment of the Zanu PF regime to colonial laws, we should not be surprised that it continues to lurk in the government’s armoury. It was chiefly used in the colonial era to punish nationalist leaders and newspaper critics.
There can be little doubt that the recent wave of arrests is designed to intimidate the staff of the Zimbabwe Independent and perhaps even close the newspaper down. A letter from Tafataona Mahoso, chair of the Media and Information Commission, a body which the courts have ruled is improperly constituted, would suggest a more concerted attempt to interfere in the editorial policy of independent newspapers on the specious grounds of preventing racism.
The MIC has done nothing to address the most pernicious racism that is now current in the state media, nor the decline in professional standards in the government press and at ZBC as those media become crude instruments of individuals in the President’s Office.
The Zimbabwe Independent has a duty to the public it serves. The majority of Zimbabweans reject Mugabe’s dictatorship. They understand perfectly well why this country’s leaders are rich while the living standards of everybody else plummet. There is a direct connection between the absence of accountability at the top and national decline.
Furthermore, Mugabe does not hesitate to make the most offensive remarks against other leaders who have criticised him. His remarks about Tony Blair and John Howard are a matter of record. A government spokesman recently called a black businessman farming at Odzi an “Uncle Tom” because he dared resist the illegal expropriation of his business.
It is therefore gross hypocrisy for this regime to prosecute journalists for “defaming” the president when the language they used did not begin to match that used by Mugabe when dealing with his critics. And the claim by his spokesman of a divine status that cannot be challenged is not only preposterous, it is downright dangerous for democracy.
The Zimbabwe Independent has consistently emphasised the need for the rule of law if Zimbabwe is to recover from its present crisis. But there cannot be one law for the political class that misgoverns us and another for its victims. That is an injustice that should be evident to all.
Further attacks on this newspaper can be expected over the next few weeks and months as the regime becomes more conscious of its waning support ahead of a general election. We are ready for that battle.