Response to State Coordinated Attack on Civil Society

The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum (the Forum) has noted with great regret the state’s coordinated and systematic attack on civil society organisations in Zimbabwe through falsehoods in the media, arbitrary arrests, detention and malicious prosecutions of civil society leaders and staff members. These malicious moves are not only shameful but in violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms which the Zimbabwean government has voluntarily undertaken to respect and protect.

In the past few weeks, the state, through the Herald, the Chronicle and its surrogate tabloid the Patriot and online publication the Harare Post, has consistently published falsehoods against civil society organisations in a deliberate effort to criminalise the work of civil society, fuel hate and undermine the integrity of the persons who work with and in civil society.

On 15 May 2019, the Harare Post carried a report which maliciously claimed the Movement for Democratic Change together with civil society organisations had formed an organisation, Organise for Change (OFC) to spearhead demonstrations ‘in a bid to force President Emmerson Mnangagwa out of power.’ The publication went on to mention by name the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and its members, the Counselling Services Unit (CSU), Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) and the Zimbabwe Peace Project (ZPP). The Forum dismisses this falsehood with the contempt it deserves.

On 23 May 2019, the Patriot ran a malicious article penned by an unnamed and shameless reporter, under the title, Savanna Revolution… Zimbabweans beware. The article alleged that NGOs in Zimbabwe were involved in a plot to topple the Government of Zimbabwe through violent protests. The Forum’s member organisation the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU), its Senior Researcher Tony Reeler, and Forum coordinated National Transitional Justice Working Group (NTJWG) were mentioned in the article as part of the plot to topple the government. From 10 to 11 May 2019, the exact days that Tony Reeler was working at the RAU Offices in Harare, the Patriot maliciously claims that he was running a regime change workshop in Johannesburg. The article proceeds to invade the integrity of Anthony Reeler in a hate speech fashion, calling him a ‘Rhodie’. This terminology and general context of the article borders on inciting the public to hatred. Such conduct is deplorable in a democratic society where freedom from discrimination of any ethnic or social origin is protected by section 56 of the Constitution.
On Monday 27 May 2019, the Herald and the Chronicle ran the same Patriot story. International actors like the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), Facebook, Google, MTV and Colombia Law Schools were also mentioned in the malicious article.

The Forum notes that this work of fiction is not without consequence. The state has in the past used the same media outlets to criminalise civil society actors that are known to be critical of its human rights record as a way preparing for an onslaught on such actors and discouraging them from doing their work. The timing of the malicious articles, together with arrest of seven human rights defenders on trumped charges is very telling. This is the time when the economy is on a free fall with untold suffering gripping the masses, a development that is causing anxiety and fears of unrest on the nation.

The Forum states unequivocally that the tenets of our law are cast in the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No.20) (the Constitution). The Government is reminded of Section 61(5)(b) which states that freedom of expression and freedom of the media exclude advocacy of hatred or hate speech. Section 61(5)(d) also states that malicious or unwarranted breach of a person’s right to privacy are excluded. The Government through state owned media or other state machinery must protect the right to privacy and desist from threats through disclosure of the personal history of human rights activists in the press. Section 57 of the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy and section 58 affirms that every person has the right to freedom of assembly.

Civil society leaders across the country have reported an increase in surveillance, office visits and interruption of their meetings by the state. Civil society organisations are simply people organising themselves to find solutions to problems affecting their communities. They are not enemies, but partners for development. Their work is legitimate and must not be criminalised. They provide the necessary checks on public leadership and their work must be embraced as a positive contribution to transparency and accountability. In times of natural disasters, they do more than the state in assisting the vulnerable. In times of state brutality, they offer protection to vulnerable citizens.

These unwarranted attacks, abductions and arrests are a violation of their freedom of assembly. The actions not only violate the Zimbabwean Constitution and international treaties such as the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, but are also contrary to the spirit of the Cotonou Declaration on strengthening and expanding the protection of all human rights defenders in Africa which speaks against the use of any measures which aim at silencing human rights defenders.

Furthermore, the United Nations Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms states in article 5 that for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, at the national and international levels to meet or assemble peacefully.

Article 2 of this declaration makes it incumbent on each State to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms and by adopting such steps as may be necessary to create all conditions necessary in the social, economic, political and other fields, as well as the legal guarantees required to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction, individually and in association with others, are able to enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice.

The Forum notes the current economic crisis and lament that Government must consider urgently addressing the needs of its people than keep tabs on the meetings of civil society which are a legitimate feature in a democratic society. The government has commitments to social security for its people through socio-economic rights entrenched in the constitution and those must be its preoccupation. The bread, butter and fuel concerns are the nuts and bolts of human existence and these should be on the top of Government priorities. Of particular concern is the Government’s preoccupation with the persecution of civil society and human rights defenders while neglecting its duty to alleviate the untold suffering that citizens are going through.

The Forum urges the Government not only to open up civic space, allow civil society and human defenders to carry out their work but also to take the necessary steps to alleviate the suffering of citizens in the face of harsh economic conditions.

The Forum therefore calls on the Government to: Refrain from criminalising the work of civil society and allow human rights defenders to do their work without surveillance, threats, intimidation or malicious arrests; Refrain from attacking the dignity and violating the privacy of human rights defenders; Respect its duty to respect fundamental human rights and freedoms as provided in section 44 of the Constitution; Stop the crackdown on civil society and human rights defenders; Pay urgent attention to the economy which is threatening livelihoods and eroding the economic rights of the people.

The Forum calls on the named publications to immediately retract their falsehoods against civil society and to stop the malicious damage on people’s dignity. Failure to do so will lead to legal action against the publications, the authors and the editors.

Source: Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum