A FIERCE battle between government and civil society is looming over the recently gazetted Private Voluntary Organisation (PVOs) Amendment Bill, with pro-democracy groups slamming the government for attempting to silence dissenting voices.
Analysts have also accused President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government of deploying the law to settle political scores while exhibiting an insatiable appetite to defuse opposition parties’ power.
The PVO Amendment Bill was gazetted on Friday last week.
It states that leaders of NGOs that fund political parties or candidates will face up to a year in prison.
The amendments bar PVOs from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate in Zimbabwe’s elections.
The PVOs “violating” this provision would be guilty of an offence and fined a Level 12 penalty or face imprisonment for a period not exceeding one year, or both.
A Level 12 fine exceeds ZW$30 000 (US$309) and is imposed at the courts.
This is also extended to foreign organisations that solicit funds for political parties in breach of the Political Parties Finance Act.
According to Veritas, the Bill, whose stated purpose is to amend the PVO Act to comply with Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) recommendations made to Zimbabwe to prevent money laundering and financing of terrorism, gives broad discretion to the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare over the activities of PVOs.
“This broad approach could mean the new legislation could be applied selectively or with bias to silence or frustrate organisations targeted by the ministry for reasons other than suspected financing of terrorist activities,” it said.
“Section 2(3) would give the minister wide discretion to designate any type of entity as being at high risk for terrorist financing which allows him/her to subject the entity or such an organisation to measures that can interfere with its free operations.
“Section 2(4) empowers the Registrar to make trustees of trusts registered with the High Court write sworn statements to stop collecting public contributions which can impede funding and operations,” Veritas added.
In Section 13(a), Veritas argues, when PVOs make organisational changes, they might be required to re-register by the Registrar who may reject the application.
“This gives the authorities latitude to deny registration to any perceived errant organisations. According to Section 21, the minister will be able to replace a PVO’s executive provisional members, allowing the minister to meddle in organisational internal affairs without any Court oversight,” it said.
“Section 22(2) as proposed in the Bill provides that the minister must carry out risk assessments of organisations every five years. But the section is silent on the need for the minister to engage the organisations in this risk assessment process.”
While some NGOs in Harare indicated that they were still scrutinising the proposed amendments, they, however, accused the government of trying to invade the democratic space occupied by the civil society and destroy the NGOs.
In an interview, the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum executive director Musa Kika said the Bill was preceded by several pronouncements by the government and ruling Zanu PF party against the work of CSOs.
He said the pronouncements give the CSOs reason to worry that the agenda is to curtail their work.
“The target is clearly those who work in governance, democracy and human rights spaces. Unfortunately, no society can be functional without a vibrant organised civil society to keep power holders in check, and to build an active and engaged citizenry,” Kika said.
“If we see these as threats, then we are retrogressive indeed as a society. Our hope is that a law that seeks to kill this should not see the light of the day.”
Farai Maguwu, the founding director of the Centre for Natural Resource Governance, said the amendments gave the minister too much power to meddle in the affairs of independent CSOs.
He said there was a deliberate attempt by the government to capture the civic society space.
“Actually a lot of powers are given to the minister to appoint and there is no due process that is followed. There is no board that is going to decide who is suitable to be appointed,” Maguwu said.
“So you may have some politically connected individuals with some political interests being appointed on paper to run the affairs of an organisation for six months but in principle to destroy it.”
He also questioned the rationale behind the Bill on tackling terrorism.
“The big question we have is, is Zimbabwe under a threat of terrorist attacks. Secondly, if it is so, what is the level of that attack and what is the nature of that attack?
“Is it going to be a bomb blast targeting certain people? Is it going to be an insurrection or rebel movement fighting to overthrow a legitimate government?
“If those factors are established, the question is, is there any evidence linking civic society to any attempts to commit acts of terrorism?” he queried.
Maguwu also challenged government to produce evidence linking civil society to threats of terrorism.
“There is also need for government to do a thorough definition of terrorism? What is their understanding of terrorism? As we have seen elsewhere, the word or the concept of terrorism has been the most abused term since 9/11,” he said.
“A lot of governments that are afraid of democracy and human rights have used terrorism narrative to stamp down on descent, to shut down the civic space.”
On the issue of PVOs being involved in politics, he challenged the government to give a clear definition of terms on what constitutes involvement in politics.
The PVOs constitute a basket of factors with some working on the human rights element, teaching people about their rights, he argued.
“They denounce human rights violations. And as we know human rights violations have got perpetrators. So we risk having a situation where perpetrators of human rights abuses may interpret advocates of human rights as being involved in politics and unlawfully ban PVOs which are only doing their work which is defined in their founding documents and also not at war with the constitution of Zimbabwe,” he said.
Analyst Alexander Rusere said the government was declaring war against the civil society in Zimbabwe.
“The unfortunate part of the Mnangagwa government is that it is exhibiting an insatiable appetite to punish or block any dissenting voices. You look at the deployment of the law to secure political means. The idea here is not necessarily rule of law but rule by law where you are deploying the law not specifically to seek the end or means of justice but to settle political scores,” he said.