Introduction

Zimbabwe’s 2018 elections coming on the backdrop of the ouster of former President Robert Mugabe in November 2017, were held amid great expectations of a new era that would spur the country’s socio-economic development in a concomitantly open and free democratic space.

These expectations were underpinned through pledges by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s newly elected government to undertake requisite economic and political reforms to unlock international foreign direct investment as enunciated through his Zimbabwe is ‘open for business’ mantra. Media policy and law reforms were among the key reforms critical to steering the Zimbabwean ship in the right direction and retaining its pride of place in the international community.

It is against these expectations that the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services led by Monica Mutsvangwa, in November 2018, held consultative meetings with key media stakeholders to get input into the form and shape the envisaged reforms would take.

Resultantly, the government conceded to the unbundling of the discredited Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) through the gazetting of the Freedom of Information Bill and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill. The Broadcasting Services Act, was also lined up for similar reconstruction through the Broadcasting Services Amendment Bill.

However, as 2019 came to a close, more than a year after the July 2018 elections, government’s sincerity in undertaking the envisaged democratic reforms became increasingly questionable.

While the government has since gazetted the Freedom of Information Bill and the Zimbabwe Media Commission Bill, it is regrettable that the two Bills were generally viewed as a far cry from meeting the country’s constitutional yardsticks as envisaged under Sections 61 and 62 of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of expression, media freedom and access to information.

The government’s lethargic, if not lacklustre approach, in implementing genuine democratic reforms is thus cause for great concern.

This should be viewed on the backdrop of the resuscitation of the repressive Public Order and Security Act (POSA) – albeit under a new name – the Maintenance of Order and Peace Act (MOPA), but with the retention, if not tightening of POSA’s draconian provisions.

Reservations by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, Clement Nyaletsossi, at the end of his visit to Zimbabwe (17 – 27 September 2019), prior to the enactment of MOPA, are poignant in that regard.

Nyaletsossi, said then, the proposed law had worrying similarities to POSA revealing a common scope in which the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly is not fully guaranteed.

He noted that the Bill (before its enactment), did not propose “significant substantive amendments) targeted to address the main problems then prevailing under POSA.

“Instead the … bill continues to give law enforcement agencies broad regulatory discretion and powers,” “ he said in his end of mission to Zimbabwe statement.

Nyaletsossi, however, noted one important improvement being the deletion of Section 27 of POSA related to the temporary prohibition of holding processions or public demonstrations within particular police districts. “However this change is made based on the declaration of unconstitutionality made by the Constitutional Court in 2018.

“Another improvement is the provision mandating the President, instead of the Minister of Defence (as provided by POSA), to authorise the deployment of military forces to assist the police in exercising their functions, and report promptly to Parliament bringing it in line with the Constitution.

The UN Special Rapporteur, was nonetheless circumspect on the deployment of military forces. “From my discussions on recent events, I have perceived that the use of military forces has a profound negative impact, including in the minds of the population, who fear these forces are not adequately trained to handle demonstrations.

“On this point, I would like to stress that the involvement of the military in the managing of assemblies contradicts the Guidelines for the Policing of Assemblies by Law Enforcement Officials in Africa, as they provide that military forces must only be used in exceptional circumstances and only if absolutely necessary.”

His observations came on the backdrop of the shrinking of the country’s democratic space as evidenced by the suppression of demonstrations and abductions of civic society activists and other dissenting voices. In January 2019, an estimated 17 people were killed by security personnel following nationwide protests against fuel price increases resulting in a four-day Internet shutdown.

Inevitably, several journalists were caught in the crossfire of the government’s crackdowns against constitutionally guaranteed rights to media freedom, freedom of expression, assembly and association. In that regard, the operational environment and democratic space remained volatile, uncertain and unpredictable.

Given the foregoing, Zimbabwe was thus back to the pre-Government of National Unity (GNU) 2007-2008 status quo ante characterised by socio-economic political instability and contested presidential election results, triggering incessant calls for political dialogue and implementation of fundamental reforms.

This scenario, notwithstanding the temporary relief ushered by the GNU (2009 – 2013), was back to haunt the country yet again despite President Mnangagwa’s pledges to usher socioeconomic and political stability hinged on strengthening Zimbabwe’s institutions of democracy.

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Source: MISA Zimbabwe