No going back on press freedom

NO one should be in a

ny doubt that the assault by the state on the country’s only independent daily paper this week is a political move designed to suppress freedom of expression in Zimbabwe.

There have been some misleading claims by officials that the police acted in terms of the law. Let’s be clear about this. The police acted in terms of a political agenda set by the Office of the President. The law in this case is a poorly drafted Act which is not only in conflict with Section 20 of the constitution but violates a number of international conventions to which Zimbabwe is a party.

The legal umbrella group, Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, points out that the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa) is “a repressive piece of legislation that was enacted primarily to undermine the right to freedom of expression and stifle the exchange of ideas and information by the people of Zimbabwe”.

Aippa, together with the Public Order and Security Act, the Broadcasting Services Act, the Miscellaneous Offences Act, and the Labour Relations Act, form what the legal group calls “an axis of repression”.

The Supreme Court is tasked with the protection of freedoms laid down in the constitution’s Bill of Rights. Since threats from war veterans and ministers forced a number of judges to resign or retire in recent years, it is open to question whether the present bench is fulfilling that mandate.

Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights notes that the Supreme Court ruling against Associated Newspapers of Zimbabwe, publishers of the Daily News and the Daily News on Sunday, effectively resulted in “the biggest assault on the right of freedom of expression in the history of our Independence”. It describes as regrettable the conclusion that unconstitutional legislation designed to deny free expression has now been given judicial approval by a court entrusted with the protection of fundamental freedoms and universally recognised human rights.

“Repression may therefore have sadly found itself an ally against human rights defenders in the form of the judiciary,” ZLHR says.

That remains to be seen. The Supreme Court has left the door open for ANZ to approach the court again once it has registered. But in the meantime, how does it cope without its equipment and with staff barred from entering their offices? Indeed, as a legal columnist asks in this issue, how can what is known as a “clean hands” application succeed when the means to make that application is removed?

Must citizens first comply with a law, even if that law violates their fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution, before challenging it in court? An unpopular regime that obtained its mandate by coercion is thereby able to circumvent constitutional freedoms by wielding its parliamentary majority in disregard of laid-down rights in cases where the judiciary is painfully slow to rule and, in any case, is in awe of the executive.

That makes both a mockery of the law and the constitution. Aippa was introduced into parliament with no public mandate. There was no public demand for a media commission or for licensing of the press. The only pressure for that came from the president and his minions who were embarrassed by exposure of their misrule and double standards.

The media commission has all-too-predictably proved itself partisan, focusing its attentions solely upon the private media while ignoring blatantly unethical behaviour by the state media. It is widely seen as an instrument of a minister who has a score to settle with the independent press following his humiliation in the referendum campaign and subsequent electoral tests.

Whatever the constitutional implications, the assault on the Daily News is part of a wider assault on the freedoms of Zimbabweans who are proving resistant to the warnings and threats of a regime in terminal decline. It now hopes to proceed on the basis of public ignorance. It seriously believes that by denying people access to news and feeding them a diet of deceit through its own media, it can recover their electoral support.

It’s not going to happen. Zanu PF has lost public confidence because of its failure to govern wisely, not because of a plot by its “enemies”. It cannot command respect or loyalty. It certainly cannot hide the news. News has a habit of finding its own way out.

The free flow of information is fundamental both to democratic choice and good governance. Where bomb attacks have failed to silence an outspoken critic, the government no doubt calculates this clumsy move will succeed. We doubt it. Zimbabweans have tasted press freedom. There can be no going back.

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