Zimbabwe Parliament’s independence under siege

via Zimbabwe ParlIament’s independence under siege March 10, 2014  NewsDay

THE recent order by Speaker of the House of Assemby Jacob Mudenda to bar Members of Parliament (MPs) from making “unsubstantiated” claims deemed offensive to public officials, institutions and individuals is likely to stifle debate in the House as it has a net effect of making MPs mere rubber stampers of executive decisions.

The order is also likely to cow MPs into docility and ensure they turn a blind eye on suspected corruption for fear of being charged with Contempt of Parliament.

How else, one wonders, would parliamentarians be able to smoke out corrupt officials if they are muzzled? Granted, the order is meant to ensure MPs don’t make reckless statements that border on malice under the cover of Parliamentary Immunities and Privilleges Act, but their oversight role is likely to be greatly inhibited by the ruling.

Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (Zimra) boss Gershem Pasi has already threatened to make a Constitutional Court challenge against recent “offensive” statements made against him by Mbizo MP Settlement Chikwinya. Should the court uphold Pasi’s application, it would erode the independence of the Legislature.

That then begs the question: What then constitute Parliamentary Privilleges?

Part 9 of the Zimbabwe Constitution under General Matters Relating to Parliament and section 148 on Privileges and Immunities of Parliament reads:

(1) The President of the Senate, the Speaker and Members of Parliament have the freedom of speech in Parliament and in all parliamentary committees and, while they must obey the rules and orders of the House concerned they are not liable to civil or criminal proceedings, arrest or imprisonment or damages for anything said in, produced before or submitted to Parliament or in any of its committees.

(2) An Act of Parliament may:

(a) Provide for other privileges, immunities, and powers of Parliament and its members and officers

(b) Define conduct which constitutes contempt of Parliament, whether committed by Members of Parliament or other people; and

(c) Provide for a right of reply, through the Speaker or the President of the Senate, as the case may be, for persons who are unjustly injured by what is said about them in Parliament;

But no such Act may permit Parliament or its Members or officers to impose any punishment in the nature of a criminal penalty, other than a fine, for breach of privilege or contempt of Parliament.

Zimbabweans who have in the past been charged with contempt of Parliament include Obert Mpofu when he was Industry and Trade minister in 2006 and was charged and found guilty of presenting false or fabricated documents over alleged corruption at Ziscosteel before a Foreign Affairs, Industry and International Trade Committee.

The Parliamentary Privileges Committee chaired by Sydney Sekeramayi spared Mpofu from serving a two-year jail term, but recommended that he pays a fine of Z$40 000.

MDC-T Treasurer Roy Bennett was in 2004 imprisoned for one year after being found guilty of contempt of Parliament when he beat up the then Justice minister Patrick Chinamasa for saying Bennett’s ancestors were thieves during a debate on the land issue. Bennett served the full prison term.

In August 2011, Shabanie Mashaba Mines administrator Afaras Gwaradzimba was arraigned before a Parliamentary Privileges Committee after undermining the Mines and Energy Portfolio Committee chaired by the late Guruve South MP Edward Chindori Chininga in a newspaper article published by NewsDay.

Chinamasa was almost charged with contempt of Parliament for lying to the committee that he had SMM share warrants from T and N (United Kingdom) in his possession. He went off the hook on a technicality.

However, Gwaradzimba’s verdict went un-announced by the Privileges Committee chaired by former Zanu PF MP Munyaradzi Paul Mangwana until dissolution of the Seventh Parliament.

In July 2012, former Energy minister Elton Mangoma was almost charged with contempt of Parliament after he failed to appear before the Senate Thematic Committee on Peace and Security chaired by senator Damian Mumvuri after he had been summoned to speak on the Energy situation in the country.

Mangoma was spared after he convinced the committee that he had had other pressing government commitments.