Cornered Zimbabwe ‘is becoming southern Africa’s North Korea’
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil or go to jail.
This appeared to be the under-fire Zimbabwean government’s latest answer to its critics as it revealed plans on Wednesday to criminalise any “hate speech” against the state.
“Campaigning against one’s country shall be legislated at law and criminalised,” women and youth affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni announced, reading from cabinet resolutions.
Nyoni said the government would strengthen existing laws to “prohibit hate speech by public officials, media houses and citizens in public places and social, print and electronic media platforms”.
This comes as the US is tightening the noose around President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government in a country buckling under corruption and a dying economy.
The latest move should come as no surprise; journalist Hopewell Chin’ono is still in prison after being denied bail twice for allegedly inciting civilians to demonstrate against the government. Politician Jacob Ngarivhume was arrested on the same charge. Another journalist, Mduduzi Mathuthu, went into hiding after state security agents kidnapped his nephew, Tawanda Muchehiwa.
The idea to outlaw criticism was first mooted in 2018 after disputed elections and riots that sparked international outcry. But it was parked as the government resolved to enlist the services of several international lobby groups: the New York-based Mercury Public Affairs LLC, Mercury International United Kingdom, and Ballard Partners whose contract worth US$500,000 (R9m) a year began in March 2019.
The lobby groups were meant to create communication channels between Zimbabwe and the West as the country intended to mend relations and improve its image.
But then Harare accused Washington of being a gang of “thugs” with a plot to bring down the elected government. The abduction and torture of at least 60 pro-democracy activists ahead of the thwarted July 31 demonstrations did not help.
On Monday, Mnangagwa drew the lines when he threatened to “flush out” what he called “dark forces” from within and outside Zimbabwe. With the country’s reputation back to its default setting of being a quasi-authoritarian regime, the cabinet on Tuesday revisited the 2018 plan to criminalise speech it deemed offensive to the state.
Academic and National Constitutional Assembly political party leader Prof Lovemore Madhuku accused Mnangagwa of creating a North Korea in Southern Africa.
“It’s ridiculous. This is a North Korean-inspired thought,” he told Times Select.
He added that the new law would not pass constitutional muster.
“He would have to change the whole constitution and take away all civil rights enshrined in it. Freedom of expression and association are the fundamentals of any constitution. This idea is ill-advised because not even in parliament, where he has a majority, will it be taken seriously,” said Madhuku.
Zama Mkhwananzi, a political commentator, said the government’s move to mute its critics would end in disaster.
“They squandered all goodwill they got from the international community. Many chances have come their way but still they have chosen to fight people at home and blame the West for their problems. This won’t end well,” he said.
In response to being called “thugs”, the US placed a Zimbabwean company Sakunda Holdings and its owner Kudakwashe Tagwirei on sanctions on Tuesday afternoon.
Tagwirei is also an adviser to Mnangagwa and his firms have favourable government contracts worth billions of US dollars. Sakunda has, since 2019, bought five state-owned gold mines and Tagwirei is a big benefactor of Zanu-PF.
The US embassy said Tagwirei had been blacklisted for “providing support to the leadership of the government of Zimbabwe”.
“Tagwirei and other Zimbabwean elites have derailed economic development and harmed the Zimbabwean people through corruption,” said deputy secretary Justin Muzinich.