Editor’s Memo:Faith Zabafzaba@zimind.co.zw
THE government this week ominously announced amendments to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which will criminalise “unauthorised communication by private citizens with foreign governments.”
The amendments will criminalise the conduct of isolated citizens or groups who, for self-gain, co-operate or connive with hostile foreign governments to inflict suffering on Zimbabwean citizens and to cause damage to national interests. The law will target, “the individuals or groups [who] involve themselves in issues of foreign relations without verifying facts or engaging domestic authorities”.
The proposed change in the law, if pursued, would be accomplished through amendments to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act [Chapter 9:23]. Also to be criminalised through the contemplated amendments are protests deemed by the government to be deliberately designed to coincide with major international, continental or regional events or visits.
Other actions that will become punishable under the proposed amendments include making of “unsubstantiated claims of torture and abductions that are concocted to tarnish the image of government, and amendments will criminalise such conduct.”
The anticipated laws will undoubtedly curtail the liberties of citizens with regards to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association amidst growing authoritarianism.
Government’s controversial intention to control and restrain civil liberties in the manner described by Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa’s statement, marks a horrendous deterioration in this nation’s human rights situation; and these plans must therefore be denounced in the strongest terms possible. The government initially proposed to establish a stand-alone Act, which was to be called the Patriotic Act, criminalising and penalising “unauthorised” communication or negotiation by private Zimbabwean citizens with foreign governments.
Section 61 of the Constitution protects everyone’s right to free expression, which includes freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information. Reference to “unauthorised communication” under the proposals is therefore contrary to the basic law of Zimbabwe. The constitution also enshrines the freedoms of association, protest, and conscience. All these rights and freedoms are threatened, in fundamental ways, by the government’s legislative plans.
Besides threatening the quality of life in Zimbabwe, where the government would exercise excessive and tyrannical powers over citizens, the new legal regimen would also further isolate this country from the community of democratic nations.
It will most likely be an international public relations disaster for Zimbabwe as it will reinforce the view that Zimbabwe is a rogue state, repressive and authoritarian, and seeking to muzzle citizens and silence legitimate dissent.
The rights and freedoms that are now threatened by the proposed amendments are all enshrined under various international legal instruments such as the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. On the international stage, the proposed new laws would therefore be a source of new embarrassment and degradation for Zimbabwe in the community of democratic States.
Advocates for so-called patriotic laws, such as the ones being proposed by the government, cite the archaic Logan Act of the United States of America as justification for the retrogressive amendments to our law. That American statute was passed 222 years ago following Senator George Logan’s unauthorised negotiations with France in 1798 and was signed into law by President John Adams on January 30, 1799.
There is no record of any prosecution that has been carried out under that dormant law which has, over the years, been referred to as a “paper dragon” because it was never invoked or implemented.
The date of that law shows how so antiquated Zimbabwe’s proposed criminal laws would be, should the proposed amendments be effected. The context within which the Logan Act was passed, the time in history within which America took that legislative step, and the letter and spirit of Zimbabwe’s current Constitution, all make the “America has this law” argument, absolutely nonsensical.
In the present age, Zimbabwe seems to be taking a cue from repressive regimes such as North Korea, where making international calls is a crime; or Ukraine where the statute book now carries a decalogue of highly undemocratic anti-protest laws which restrict freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.