CRITICISING rulers directly, or even obliquely, can be hazardous for journalists, especially in countries where the head of state makes every important decision.
Iraq for example, before the recent war, praising the president the wrong way was equally dangerous. One journalist was reportedly arrested and tortured for writing that Saddam Hussein cared about every detail in the country, including the toilets.
It has been observed that countries which boldly declare that they respect free speech have in their legislation provisions that militate against such freedom when free speech is directed at the head of state.
In May Information minister Jonathan Moyo wrote to the South African government to complain that the press there was demonising President Mugabe.
“I should state categorically that we believe in media freedom as one of the pillars of democracy, yet we are clear that this freedom is not a licence for vested interests to insult and demonise a head of state,” Moyo wrote.
The injunction against criticising the president is logical if one considers the head of state as the embodiment of the nation: a person who, for reasons of decorum, should not be lampooned or belittled.
In Zimbabwe, however, the use of the Public Order and Security Act to protect the image and stature of Mugabe is questionable, especially when the head of state is also head of government and the ruling party and in those capacities attacks his opponents without restraint.
Last week police charged editor of the Daily News Nqobile Nyathi over an advert carried in her paper. The advert, placed by the opposition MDC, depicted a person resembling President Mugabe being chased by a crowd. The cartoon was accompanied by the words: “Do you recognise him? Thief! Thief! Thief!”.
On Monday, the chief executive at the newspaper, Sam Nkomo, and his commercial director, Moreblessings Mpofu, were also charged by police for publishing the same adverts which are deemed to be insulting to Mugabe.
Under Section 16 of Posa it is an offence to make any false statement about the president where there is a risk of engendering feelings of hostility towards him.
Ceremonial heads like monarchs and non-executive presidents do not usually generate discourse. They are not expected to align themselves with political groupings or causes. Such leaders do not usually make inflammatory statements against their own people or other leaders.
The law has however been used in Zimbabwe to stifle debate on the record of the president.
Analysts said as long as Mugabe remained a powerful force, rarely out of the public spotlight and ready to take on his opponents and detractors like a streetfighter, he should not expect to be protected by the law. In any case he was bound to be the butt of satirical comment by cartoonists and columnists who exercised their right to submit their rulers to public scrutiny and remind them that they are not little gods.
The analysts said as long as Mugabe continued to hurl insults at his critics and even other heads of state, he would attract an appropriate response. He should not then try and hide behind the ample skirts of Posa.
Mugabe and his handlers in their long-standing combative mode have churned out abuse with gusto. Moyo, in an apoplectic outburst early this year, called South Africans “filthy and recklessly uncouth”. He later claimed he was referring to their newspapers. Mugabe has weighed in with the bold assertion that Australian Prime Minister John Howard was a genetically modified criminal and a racist. This was after Howard insisted that Zimbabwe was still suspended from the Commonwealth and guilty of human rights abuses.
Media watchdog Article 19 has observed that public figures in the Sadc region are over-protected from criticism.
“The research has revealed that the use of these laws has increased in some countries over recent years – especially in countries facing political crisis or civil conflict,” said Article 19.
In Angola, the Law on Crimes against State Security gives powers to the state to determine threats to national security. Such threats include defaming the president and other government officials.
In the Democratic Republic of Congo a 1996 press law prohibits “insulting the person of the head of state”. Defamation of senior officials or the army is also illegal.
Section 69 of the Zambian penal code prohibits defamatory statements against the president, foreign ambassadors and other notables.
In Swaziland the Protection of the person of the Ndlovukazi Act gives special protection to the Queen Mother, who should not in any circumstances be criticised. In 2001, a royal decree extended this protection to the King.
Leaders who are generally intolerant of press freedom are even more likely to resent derision and satire.
When Namibian pre-sident Sam Nujoma attacked Britain’s Tony Blair at last year’s World Sustainable Summit, the Namibian carried a cartoon featuring a rabid Nujoma straining at the leash held by Mugabe with the caption “Mugabe’s attack dog”.
The cartoon provoked an angry response from Nujoma’s Swapo Youth League which called for legislation to ban what they call “insults” to the president.
In Swaziland the absolute monarch, King Mswati III, has sought to subvert the constitution by declaring that the traditional law has precedence over the constitution.
Last year Attorney-General Phesheya Dla-mini, a royalist, threatened judges with instant dismissal for criticising Mswati.
Swazi traditional law says: “It is the duty of every citizen to refrain from denigrating the kingdom by speaking badly about it, outside and inside the country.”
“This means the monarchy is intolerant of dissent, and the law will be used against journalists who report what government critics have to say,” said activist attorney Lucas Maziya.
In the DRC the government threatened journalists who criticised the late president Laurent Kabila.
“We are asking you to put a greater emphasis on self-censorship”, said then Minister of Justice, Jeannot Mwenze Kongolo. “A reporter who cannot censor himself is a raving, dangerous animal at large.
“This habit of always wanting to drag the head of state and other government members through the mud cannot be tolerated and will be severely punished,” he warned.
Article 19 has observed that custodial penalties imposed under insult laws, and the special protection afforded to senior public officials against defamation or insult, are unnecessary and prevent debate on matters of public interest.
“These laws should be repealed to allow free flow of information and ideas in Sadc,” the press freedom monitor says.