Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa steered the Bill through its first reading two weeks ago.
The General Laws Amendment Bill, among other issues, seeks to amend the Copyright and Neighbouring Act by giving copyright protection to legislation, notices and other material in the Government Gazette, court judgments and certain public registers.
Copyright in all these documents will vest in government. Government, as copyright holder, will have complete discretion in deciding whether or not the documents should be published and disseminated, after their initial publication in the Gazette; and government will be able to dictate the terms and conditions under which the documents are published and disseminated.
Local human rights and legal rights organisations have condemned the development saying it is retrogressive and unconstitutional in a democratic state.
Veritas, a local lawyers grouping, blasted the changes as inimical to democracy.
“The amendment proposed by clause 16 of the Bill will violate Section 20 of the Constitution, will be inimical to transparent government, human rights and the rule of law, and will be contrary to best practice in the southern African region,” Veritas said.
“Amending the Copyright and Neighbouring Act has serious implications for the rights of citizens to freely access and distribute legislation, notices and other material in the Government Gazette, court judgments and certain public registers. It is important that such information should remain in the public domain.”
Section 10 of the current Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act does not subject certain public documents to copyright such as official texts or statutes; official texts of judicial proceedings and decisions (judgments); notices and material published in the Government Gazette and the contents of official registers.
Pedzisai Ruhanya, Crisis Coalition programmes manager, echoed the same sentiments as Veritas saying the development was uncalled for.
He said: “It is uncalled for. The system that was there before should be observed. Public documents are in the public interest. I believe people moving for the changes do not understand how democracy works. What do they want to hide from the public?”
Takura Zhangazha, a civic activist, concurred saying the Bill wanted to curtail the influence of non-governmental organisations and other pro-democracy groups from disseminating information which government may deem sensitive.
“The intention of the Bill is political rather than administrative. They are seeking to control the flow of information. This should also be read in the context of electoral language as Zanu PF braces for elections next year. They are trying to manage the flow of information and this is contrary to democratic principles,” Zhangazha said.
The activists said if government was granted copyright in statutes and judgments, then the state would control how they are disseminated.
Human rights and legal activists believe that the amendments in clause 16 are a great departure from other jurisdictions in the region citing examples from South Africa, Zambia and Botswana. In all three countries no copyright subsists in official texts of a legislative, administrative or legal nature. Statutes and judgments are not subject to copyright.
The amendment will have profound effects on private organisations that would like to publicise electoral laws prior to an election as they will have to seek government permission first, in addition to any permission they may require from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.
Human rights orgainsations that want to disseminate a court judgment would have to get permission from the Minister of Justice while organisations that want to print and issue a statutory form enabling women to apply for maintenance will have to get permission too and may also have to pay a royalty to government for each form printed and distributed.