ZIMBABWEAN leaders have been misleading the public and the world that the “Patriotic Bill”, which amends the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act to criminalise locals’ connivance with foreign governments to malign the country, is similar to the United States’ Logan Act passed centuries ago.
Information minister Monica Mutsvangwa (pictured) perpetuated the lie in an interview South Africa’s Newzroom Afrika news anchor Cathy Mohlahlana this week, saying the US has done what Zimbabwe is doing.
The Patriotic Bill seeks to “criminalise the conduct of isolated citizens or groups who, for self-gain, co-operate or connive with hostile foreign governments to inflict suffering on Zimbabwean citizens and cause damage to national interests”.
However, the Logan Act, a federal law, criminalises negotiations by unauthorised American citizens with foreign governments having a dispute with the US.
The intent behind the Act is to prevent unauthorised negotiations from undermining the government’s position.
As amended, the Act reads: “Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
“This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.”
This is worlds apart from Zimbabwe’s Patriotic Bill. When it was initially introduced in Parliament, Zanu PF ministers and MPs said it was there to protect President Emmerson Mnangagwa from being criticised and called a dictator as that undermined investment.
However, the Bill clearly targets opposition parties and civil society groups from engaging embassies and diplomats to discuss the Zimbabwean crisis and related issues.
Officials justify it by claiming they want to stop the opposition or civic groups from campaigning for sanctions against the country.
Zimbabwe’s Lower House of Parliament passed the “Patriotic Bill” on May 31 which amends the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act to “criminalise the conduct of isolated citizens or groups who, for self-gain, co-operate or connive with hostile foreign governments to inflict suffering on Zimbabwean citizens and cause damage to national interests”.
In addition to clauses on patriotism, the Bill contains other provisions setting the minimum mandatory sentence for rape, an expansion of the definition of dangerous drugs and criminal abuse of office by public officers.
The Bill which was passed by the National Assembly needs to be approved by the Senate — that is the Upper House of Parliament — and to be signed by the President to become a full law. Clause 2 of the Bill will insert a new section into the Code (section 22A), creating the crime of “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe”.
The crime will be committed by a citizen or permanent resident of Zimbabwe who takes an active part in a meeting involving or convened by an agent of a foreign government, if the citizen or resident knows or has reason to believe that the object of the meeting is:
- to consider or plan armed intervention in Zimbabwe by the foreign government, or l to subvert or overthrow the constitutional Zimbabwean government, or
- to consider, implement or extend sanctions or a trade boycott against Zimbabwe, or against an individual or official if the sanctions or boycott affect a substantial section of the people of Zimbabwe. The penalties for wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe will attract jail terms of between 10-20 years according to the object of the meeting.
Participation in meetings whose objective is to subvert or overthrow the government will attract a maximum sentence of up to 20 years. Section 174 (“Criminal abuse of duty as a public officer”) of the principal Act which is amended by the repeal of subsection (1) says an officer shall be guilty of criminal abuse of duty as a public officer and liable to a fine not exceeding level thirteen or imprisonment for a period not exceeding fifteen years or both.
The officer shall be guilty or both if he or she does anything which he or she knows is contrary to or inconsistent with his or her duty as a public officer; or if he or she omits to do anything which he or she knows it is his or her duty to do; with the intention of conferring an undue or illegal benefit on someone else or of unfairly or illegally prejudicing someone else.
The major fears are that these provisions will trample on basic civic rights and close the democratic space. It is the clauses on patriotism and criminal abuse of office that have triggered concerns due to their vagueness and potential to be misinterpreted to stifle freedom of expression.