PRESIDENT Emmerson Mnangagwa’s new administration is reverting to an archaic law from the era of former authoritarian ruler Robert Mugabe, which was used to silence critics with custodial sentences and fines.
The original insult law which criminalised insulting the president was struck down by the Constitutional Court (Con-Court) in 2013, a move that was hailed as a milestone for Zimbabwe’s young democracy.
Then, the Con-Court ruled that the offence of undermining the authority of the president and “communicating falsehoods” ran counter to the freedom of expression enshrined in a new Constitution adopted in 2013.
But the Con-Court ruling was never codified at law, and Mnangagwa, who came to power on the strength of promises to chart a new path, continues to use the draconian legal instrument to silence descent.
Human rights groups said the continued use of presidential insult laws by Mnangagwa was a “step backward” for freedom of expression, and risked alienating the president from his supporters, many of whom campaigned against the old version of the law.
During the Mugabe era, dozens were arraigned before the courts on charges of insulting the ruler.
Some, including a leading opposition figure Douglas Mwonzora who called Mugabe a “tired donkey” and a “goblin” at a Nyanga rally ahead of 2013 polls, were detained for weeks.
Mwonzora later approached the Con-Court challenging the constitutionality of the charges, arguing that the State was infringing on his right to freedom of expression.
The judge who handled the matter, the now late Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku asked if the State would simply prosecute an individual for making political statements.
“If someone is going to call the president ‘gamatox’ or ‘weevil’, are you going to prosecute him? Are these not reckless political statements? In politics, people call each other names. Why are you bringing it for prosecution?” Chidyausiku asked then.
While Mnangagwa promised to “chart a new path” when he assumed the reins, more people have fallen foul to the insult laws under his reign.
Some of the individuals include activists Phillip Mugadza, Gustav Kativu, Sten Zvorwadza, Acie Lumumba and recently IDEAL Zimbabwe leader Tinashe Jonasi.
Kativu was charged under the Act after parading a placard inscribed Mnangagwa is a “murderer”.
The State later conceded that there was no reasonable basis to proceed with the case and dropped charges.
Jonasi reportedly claimed during an interview that Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa had an affair with Mnangagwa and that vice presidents Kembo Mohadi and Constantino Chiwenga were murderers.
He has challenged the trio to face him in court where he said he wants to prove that the allegations he made.
The arrests have been slammed for clogging the justice delivery system and wasting the State’s resources.
“The prosecution of people on undermining the president is actually undermining the President himself and it would appear that Mnangagwa seems to have a very thin skin in terms of criticism. They waste State resources yet the Supreme Court has since said that that law is unconstitutional,” said MDC spokesperson Jacob Mafume, who is also a lawyer by profession.
“The fact that they could arrest a leader of a fringe party
called Ideal who was rambling about issues that clearly show maybe a mental problem shows that our government and the prosecutor general themselves are not fit to hold the offices that they hold.
“If (US president Donald) Trump and other countries like South Africa prosecuted everyone who insulted them, their jails would be full. Mnangagwa is not a son of God that he should not be criticized. He is one of the worst leaders that Zimbabwe has had. The criticism he gets is only fair comment.”
Lawyer Marufu Mandevere said continuous use of the insult law showed that the governance system which is being dubbed “the new dispensation” was still living under the shadows of the Mugabe era.
“This law is archaic, undemocratic and unconstitutional but the continuous use of the Mugabe laws in the new dispensation shows that we may not have moved an inch from the autocratic regime of the previous system.
“We all had hoped for a new dispensation of democratic as well as constitutional practice in all the arms of government but at the moment we are not getting any better.
“The current prosecutor general told his interviewing panel that he takes orders from the Executive which Executive the president belongs, therefore the current prosecution of opponents for undermining or insulting the president cannot be separated from those sentiments.”
Human rights lawyer Kudzi Kadzere said: “It is an undemocratic law which is not reasonably justifiable in an open, fair and democratic society! The President by nature is a political animal and should develop a thick enough skin to take even ‘insults’. The law has a chilling effect as it protects an incumbent who is himself immune from prosecution.”
Lawyer and legislator Job Sikhala said: “The true colours of the leopard are coming out. This is one of the most stupid laws that can be promulgated in any civilised society of the 21st century. It is used by primitive despots to thwart criticism against bad governance.”