Demo ban: Democratic space shrinking in Zim

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THE brutal clampdown by the police on anti-government protests organised by the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has exposed President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s administration for what it is: an authoritarian regime.

By Kudzai Kuwaza

It has also exploded the myth and refrains of a new dispensation; that Zimbabwe is open for business and further compounded Mnangagwa’s legitimacy crisis, while damaging his international reputation.

Armed police ruthlessly clamped down on protesters who gathered in Harare’s city centre for the Free Zimbabwe peace march last Friday using teargas, water cannons and batons.

Security agents had prior to the demonstration abducted and tortured several opposition activists and human rights activists.

Hundreds of people, including journalists, were injured as police indiscriminately beat up both protesters and by-standers, forcing businesses to shut down. Among reasons for the protest were the deteriorating standards of living characterised by cash shortages, skyrocketing prices of goods, fuel shortages and prolonged power cuts.

The MDC had earlier tried to overturn a prohibition order issued by the police late on Thursday night through an urgent High Court chamber application, but Justice Joseph Musakwa dismissed it. Efforts by the opposition party to hold similar protests in Bulawayo and Mutare was also thwarted by police and upheld by the courts.

The violent suppression of the demonstrations has drawn global condemnation for Mnangagwa who initially came in through a military coup which toppled former president Robert Mugabe in November 2017.

In a joint statement this week, the heads of mission of the delegation of the European Union, France, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Romania , Sweden and the United Kingdom and the heads of mission of Australia, Canada and the United States of America slated government over the clampdown.

“Intimidation, harassment and physical attacks on human rights defenders, trade union and civil society representatives, and opposition politicians—prior to, during and following the demonstration in Harare on 16 August are cause of great concern,” they said.

“The Zimbabwe Constitution guarantees the right to personal security from violence and prohibits physical or psychological torture. The heads of mission urge the authorities to respect these fundamental rights, and to hold perpetrators of violence legally responsible.”

Political analyst Eldred Masunungure said Zanu PF’s survival strategy and tactics remain unchanged despite making the right noises of ensuring democratic principles.

“The banning of demonstrations shows the unchanged nature of Zanu PF whenever their hold on power is threatened,” Masunungure said. “There is a mismatch between what government has said it wants to do and what it is doing on the ground.”

Masunungure pointed out that the ban on the constitutionally stipulated right to protest raises questions over the credibility of the government and erodes its ability to “robustly re-engage with the international community”.

The Mnangagwa government’s democracy deficit is not just confined to the suppression of the right to protest as enshrined in Section 59 of the constitution; it is also shown in the controversial “unbundling and cosmetic repackaging” of draconian laws such as the Public Order and Security Act (Posa) and the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (Aippa).

So far, the government has gazetted a proposed replacement to Posa in the form of the Maintenance of Peace and Order Bill.

According to Veritas, a local legal think-tank, “the provisions of Posa have been copied slavishly in the Bill so that all Posa’s undemocratic features have been retained”.

It concludes that “the draft Bill is not new wine in an old bottle: it is the same old wine in the same bottle with a new label stuck on it.”

These include empowering police to ask political parties for lists of members of office-bearers who attend meetings of committees and structures.

Zimbabweans would still be expected to give police seven days’ notice before they hold meetings.

Despite misgivings by the opposition on the flaws in the new Bill, Zanu PF has used its two-thirds majority to railroad the proposed law.

The developments in the country do not only have a negative impact politically, but also have an adverse impact on business, according to business consultant Simon Kayereka.

“The unfolding events in Zimbabwe are very worrisome for business. The shutting down by businesses had a huge negative effect on industry,” Kayereka said. “Businesses cannot flourish in such an environment, making the mantra that ‘Zimbabwe is open for business’ sound hollow. If the situation is not addressed, more and more businesses will suffer. The outside world has instant access to information and no amount of persuasion will convince them until we change the way we do things in the country.”

Despite waxing lyrical on media reforms, Mnangagwa’s government has been found wanting on substantive changes on the media landscape.

In a matter that was opposed by both ZBC and Zimpapers, Justice Mafusire found that the media houses were heavily biased in their reportage and failed to accommodate dissenting views, violating the constitution.

“It is hereby declared that ZBC and Zimpapers have conducted themselves in material breach of section 61 of the Constitution in that they have not been impartial and free to determine independently the editorial content of their broadcasts or other communication and they have not afforded fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions,” reads part of a July 19 judgment released at the High Court in Masvingo.

Political analyst Tawanda Zinyama said government has been using coercive measures instead of dialoguw to resolve the crisis.

“Government has been using more of coercion than persuasion,” Zinyama said.

“Zimbabweans have a constitutional right to protest against issues they are not happy about and government should also then respond and explain what programmes they have put in place to solve the problems. Although Zimbabweans have a right to contest, it should not result in the destruction of property and looting.”

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