Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
- A Zimbabwean journalist is in trouble for “insulting or undermining the authority of the president”.
- The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged presidents to be more tolerant of criticism and debate.
- Those unhappy with President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime are increasingly venting their frustrations by mocking him.
About a year before Zimbabwe’s general election, where President Emmerson Mnangagwa will seek re-election to a second and final term, the country’s “insult law” is increasingly being used.
The latest to break the law is journalist Mduduzi Mathuthu, who faces up to a year in prison for “insulting or undermining the authority of the president” in violation of Article 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification to be trained).
For two weeks, the Law and Order Section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) had been tracking the journalist until his lawyer, Nqobani Sithole, escorted him to the Central Police Station on Monday. Bulawayo, where he was formally charged.
It is alleged that Mathuthu posted a tweet that Mnangagwa addressed the nation under the influence of alcohol when he announced the banks’ suspension of their core lending business.
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It’s a Robert Mugabe-era scenario, according to media activist Njabulo Ncube of the Zimbabwe Editors Forum (ZINEF).
“Nothing changed under Mnangagwa. That’s what Robert Mugabe did under public pressure over his failed policies,” he said.
Angela Quintal, Africa Program Coordinator of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said: “Presidents are public figures and should have a greater tolerance for criticism and debate without [the] the police must waste resources defending their reputation.”
Attack on dissent
This year alone, many have broken the law.
Those unhappy with Mnangagwa’s rule are increasingly venting their frustrations by mocking him.
To name a few, 48-year-old Maria Mapfumo was charged under the law in March for accusing Zanu-PF leader Bernard Dangi and Mnangagwa of having the potential to kill her husband, a teacher, because he got involved in politics.
I had a healthy conversation with @Mathuthu shortly after his release. He was jovial and will continue to work. Unfortunately, I had already sent a whiskey for him to the Bulawayo police holding cells. I don’t know which policeman will receive the Glen I sent. https://t.co/YOtj6yioqN
— Dhara Blessed Mhlanga (@bbmhlanga) June 6, 2022
Mehlo Mpala, a 42-year-old man from Hwange in Matabeleland North, was accused of laughing at a man who wore Zanu-PF badges with Mnangagwa’s face, which he called “garbage”.
Lawyer Noble Chinhanu of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum found himself in February representing six MDC Alliance activists who allegedly told police officers on duty that they were Mnangagwa’s dogs.
In defense of his clients, Chinhanu said calling the police on Mnangagwa’s dogs was a compliment.
“If the defendant meant that the police office can be interpreted as Mnangagwa’s dogs, in the sense that they are in the loyal service of the state, and that Mnangagwa is the head of state, one wonders why we are even wasting resources on this case.”
History of the Insult Law
In 1982, the government passed a law prohibiting citizens from joking about the president’s last name.
At the time, Robert Mugabe was prime minister and the presiding officer was Canaan Banana. Jokes involving bananas could result in jail time.
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When Mugabe became executive president in 1987, that meant joking about him was also banned.
In 2015 there were calls for the law to be scrapped but, as then vice president, Mnangagwa said it was a reasonable law that “seeks to secure the right to dignity” of the president.
However, in most cases, those found guilty get away with a level six fine, which today would amount to Z$4,800. [about US$13.26 or R200].
A 2018 Columbia Human Rights Review article by Amal Clooney and Phillippa Webb argues that similar laws are used in other countries where those in power seek to silence those who criticize them.
“It is currently a crime in many countries around the world to insult any of the three ‘Rs’ – rulers, religion or the royal family – and people are being prosecuted for such insults in criminal and military courts.”
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