THE Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) notes with concern the continued use of section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, which criminalises insulting or undermining the authority of the President against citizens who express themselves on matters to do with or connected with the President.
In recent months, ZLHR has recorded several cases of individuals arrested and prosecuted on allegations of “insulting” President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Over the years, ZLHR has called for the repeal of this draconian provision, which has long been used to stifle freedom of expression and punish those perceived to be political enemies of the President.
The crime of insulting the President has its roots in the country’s colonial past.
It is a re-enactment of section 16 of the Public Order and Security Act (Posa), and the repressive colonial Law and Order (Maintenance) Act (Loma) of 1960, which was used by the colonial regime to suppress civil unrest as the liberation struggle intensified.
Loma was especially used to restrict the right to freedom of expression and the right to protest against the colonial regime.
When Zimbabwe attained its independence in 1980, the provision was retained and is now increasingly being used against critics of the post-colonial government.
ZLHR is concerned that section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act violates the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of the media protected under section 61 of the Constitution.
The provision also violates Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
This piece of legislation has no place in a just and free Zimbabwe 42 years after the attainment of independence.
While Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act is often justified under the pretext of protecting the dignity of the office of the President, such justification should not be allowed to take away the rights of citizens to express their views – whether positive or negative – of their President.
The protection of the dignity of the President is not a legitimate justification in a constitutional democracy, where citizens are allowed to express criticism and opinion on any issues related to public figures and political affairs.
As Zimbabwe draws closer to the 2023 harmonised elections, ZLHR is concerned with the trend of unrelenting use of the crime of insulting the President to muzzle citizens from expressing opinions, both online and offline, on political affairs.
In light of these concerns, ZLHR urges government to:
- Repeal section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act;
- Drop all pending criminal charges brought against individuals under section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act;
- Raise awareness among public officials, including law enforcement officials, prosecutors, the judiciary and others, of the requirement that public figures should tolerate a higher degree of criticism;
- Comply with the obligations to promote, respect, protect and fulfil the right to freedom of expression under the Constitution, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.