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Editor’s Memo

Colonial law

Vincent Kahiya

ON Monday, four journalists from the Zimbabwe Independent, including myself, had our application to be removed from remand turned down. I

t was argued that the objections our legal team had raised would be best contested at trial.

Our objections were that we had been arbitrarily deprived of our liberty, both by detention and repeated court appearances, over a story whose substance the state does not contest.

The story concerned the use of an Air Zimbabwe aircraft by President Mugabe at the beginning of the year for his holiday in the Far East.

When we appear again on January 10, it will be exactly one year since we were picked up by the CID on the orders of Information minister Jonathan Moyo and incarcerated for a weekend. At the time Moyo described our story as “blasphemous”. We were charged with criminal defamation, a colonial legal relic struck down in most former British colonies as incompatible with democratic practice.

Ghana and Sri Lanka are the latest countries to dispense with what was designed in Whitehall as an instrument of colonial governments to suppress nationalist voices, particularly in the press.

That it has been resurrected by Mugabe’s increasingly paranoid regime, boasting of sovereignty but finding colonial measures handy, should not surprise any of us. At the same time journalists who want to see greater accountability by those who rule us should welcome this opportunity to expose the regime’s structural shortcomings. Here is a prosecution that is aimed at preventing public scrutiny of President Mugabe’s use of public resources.

Mugabe, let us remind ourselves, is not simply the head of state. He is the head of a government with a shocking record of squandering public funds and the head of a political party that believes the country owes it a living.

Zanu PF’s record of running down its own companies is currently the subject of an internal investigation, details of which were reported in the Independent last week.

Air Zimbabwe is a public company that taxpayers are on a regular basis asked to keep in business. It is by all accounts a poorly-managed company. It has a record of providing aircraft for Mugabe’s use and for inconveniencing passengers in the process. It loses money hand over fist. It is therefore a matter of legitimate public interest how its fleet is managed.

By accusing the Independent of criminal defamation, the state is signalling not only its repressive political agenda but also its refusal to be accountable to the public.

But it is doing more than that. The intention is to tie the paper up in costly legal red tape, and prevent it from functioning normally. How else do we explain seven court appearances over 10 months when the state was unable to produce a case against us? Then when our lawyers announced their application to have us taken off remand because there clearly wasn’t a case, the state in the space of five hours announced that it had found one.

The docket had just been handed into the Attorney-General’s Office, we were told.

This is political harassment by any definition. And we are not alone in facing it. The same thing – spurious and vexatious charges – is being thrown at MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai. The aim is the same: to paralyse normal activity.

In our case we were fortunate that the court declined to entertain the state’s request that we surrender our passports and report to the police weekly. The court also slashed our bail requirement.

While we are by no means optimistic of final success given the political nature of the case, we are very confident that we are guilty of no more than holding Mugabe and Air Zimbabwe up to public scrutiny – of embarrassing them in other words.

Politicians, companies and institutions supported from the national purse have a duty to explain how national resources are used. Newspapers must ensure those explanations are publicised. And professional apologists who believe it is blasphemy for political leaders to be treated this way need to be exposed to the public scorn they deserve.

Never let it be said again that President Mugabe is unafraid of criticism. This case has put paid to that fiction. He cannot be sued for defamation whatever he says about his opponents. But he can hide behind colonial laws like this when it suits him.

Let me assure readers that whatever the intentions of the state in bringing this threadbare case against us, we will continue to crusade for public accountability by those who rule us because the nation requires it. People have every right to know how their funds are used.

And we will also campaign against laws that are designed to silence criticism of those who aspire to occupy public office. We therefore look forward to our day in court. At least it will afford us a good platform ahead of the election.

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