PRESIDENT Robert Mugabe is tightening his grip on Zimbabwe through new despotic laws that analysts this week said were calculated to cripple civic society and the opposition.Mugabe’s multi-pronged
strategy to silence dissent includes attempts to ban non-governmental organisations (NGOs) involved in issues of governance and human rights, criminalisation of the journalism profession and restricting opposition parties.
Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) national director, Alois Chaumba, said four new Bills expected to be pushed through parliament would effectively put the country under undeclared martial rule ahead of the critical general election.
“Clearly Mugabe is trying to put the country under an unofficial emergency rule ahead of the parliamentary election due in March,” Chaumba said. “It would seem there is a state of siege from the way state apparatus are being used to deny people their freedoms.”
Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa has tabled in parliament the NGO Bill, Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Bill, Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy (Aippa) Amendment Bill.
Brian Raftopoulos of the University of Zimbabwe’s Institute of Development Studies said the package of legislation was meant to consolidate Mugabe’s power.
“It is meant to create the impression that the government is watching its opponents and that it is aware of every move they make. In fact, this represents a movement towards some kind of new fascism,” Raftopoulos said.
The Aippa amendment will prohibit unaccredited or suspended journalists from practising. The proposed legislation will also give the Information minister more powers to appoint a disciplinary committee to deal with members of the Media and Information Commission. The minister already wields immense powers under the principal Act.
Government is also making frantic efforts to curtail the activities of civic society. The NGO Bill seeks to repeal the Private Voluntary Organisations Act and establish new legislation that analysts have condemned as “patently unconstitutional, undemocratic and undesirable in a democratic country.”
The Bill will confer on government broad powers to close down NGOs perceived to be critical of its policies by imposing restrictive registration formalities. NGOs dealing with human rights and governance would be denied access to foreign financial assistance in a bid to curtail their contacts with international organisations.
NGOs found in breach of these regulations would be liable to criminal prosecution. UZ constitutional law expert Lovemore Madhuku said the NGO law would criminalise democratic civil society activities.
“The proposed NGO law will have the effect of criminalising civil society organisations, especially those working in the field of human rights and governance by making them liable to prosecution for legitimate and peaceful activities of promoting human rights in Zimbabwe,” said Madhuku.
“There is not much you can gain from legal challenges given that the government has already shown it will not obey court rulings that do not fit into its programme,” Madhuku said.
Another newly proposed electoral law, the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Bill has introduced a number of cosmetic changes to the electoral system, which analysts say do not comply with the Southern African Democratic Community norms and standards on elections.
Analysts say the proposed Bill is nothing more than another cynical attempt by Mugabe to pull the wool over the eyes of Zimbabweans and the international community.
“Firstly, it is clear that the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission Bill will not alter the Registrar General’s involvement in the electoral process,” MDC secretary for legal affairs, David Coltart said. “It appears the registration of voters and the running of elections will still be done by the Registrar General’s office. It is no secret that the Registrar General’s office, especially under Tobaiwa Mudede, is a partisan body. For so long as the Registrar General’s office is involved in running the elections they will not be free and fair. Besides, the chairman of this commission is appointed by Mugabe.”
The new Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill is another proposed law in a cocktail of legal instruments that analysts say if passed will further curtail most basic freedoms. The Bill will seek to re-enact, amend or repeal the non-statutory Roman-Dutch criminal law in force and as modified in Zimbabwe since 1891.
A few crimes have also been created to bring the criminal law up to date with modern developments, an example being those concerned with computer crime. Government has recently been trying to effect legislation that would empower it to snoop on e-mails and telephones through the proposed Security of Communications Bill.