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179 - You Must Be Patriotic! Zimbabwe Copies Putin, Penalizes Free Speech.
Zimbabwe becomes the latest unfree country to prohibit criticism of ruling potentates, the head honcho’s political apparatus, the nation’s government, and its repressive tactics. This week, following the infamous lead of such uncompromising autocracies as Cambodia, China, Egypt, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Russia, Senegal, Tunisia, Turkey, Venezuela, and Vietnam, Zimbabwe’s controlled parliament passed a Criminal Code Law Amendment Act, known as the Patriotic Bill. In addition to banning critiques of President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his associates, it also criminalizes anything that anyone says that harms “the country’s positive image and integrity or reputation.” Communication with foreigners is illegal when Zimbabwe could be disparaged.
Anyone "wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe" may be jailed for twenty years. “Anyone planning an armed intervention” or talking in words that could be construed as advocating “insurrection” could be sentenced to life in prison.
People are barred from issuing statements deemed unpatriotic, attending meetings inside and outside Zimbabwe aimed at overthrowing the government, or lobbying for economic sanctions and trade boycotts. (For decades Washington has sanctioned most of Zimbabwe’s politically powerful officials, largely for holding suspect elections, money laundering, blatant kleptocracy, and victimizing political prisoners.)
These draconian strictures and penalties are being put in place less than three months before a major Zimbabwe parliamentary and presidential election, scheduled for August 23. Just as Hun Sen, Cambodia’s dictatorial president, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s recently reelected authoritarian president, jailed his potential opponents and shut down their political parties, so President Mnangagwa, 80, is preempting campaign critiques of his regime --- its massive corruption, spiraling inflation, and biting hunger.
Mnangagwa ousted President Robert Mugabe, an aging kleptocratic autocrat, in a bloodless coup in 2017. He then won a close election in 2018 that was regarded as manipulated. In August, his Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front, in power since 1980, will once more face challengers led by Nelson Chamisa on behalf of the Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC). But, according to the new law, Chamisa may not speak the truth, lest he and his fellow CCC candidates utter “unpatriotic” words. Chamisa, 45, and his compatriots, are also barred by the new legislation from speaking to foreign embassies or to persons like me. They may not utter strident criticisms of Mnangagwa’s failure to improve living standards nor condemn his failure to bring prosperity to Zimbabwe. If they declare that Mnangagwa, once Mugabe’s “bagman,” is wholly corrupt, they become suspected of treason and perfidious and suspicious anti-patriotic actions.
Indeed, not only are there no definitions of what constitutes anti-patriotic speech, and no boundaries to the proscribed utterances, but infringements of the new law will obviously be determined solely by the ruling party and its police detachments. The judges are all beholden to the government. The new act neither defines “sovereignty” nor “national interest.” Both notions could be interpreted very broadly and subjectively. George Orwell will know the methods. Legitimate conduct, in other words, can suddenly be criminalized and freedom of expression extinguished. Citizens might also be harassed if they so much as attend a meeting or listen to a speech advocating more American sanctions.
As a CCC spokesperson indicated, the new law undermines “the fundamental principles of freedom of association and assembly and threatens to stifle free speech. This is a dark chapter in our nation and political forum.” Former Finance minister Tendai Biti declared that "Not even Apartheid Rhodesia passed such a repugnant law."
In addition to penalizing political discussion and dialogue, Zimbabwe’s governmental electoral apparatus has somehow fiddled the national voters’ roll. It deleted citizens who once were on the roll. The lists that show the names of persons permitted to cast ballots have been scrubbed. A former minister of justice saw his name in the proper constituency months ago but cannot find it now. Removing names illegally does even more to slant the votes than contemporary Republican efforts to disenfranchise Democrats and African Americans in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee. As the former justice minister said after searching everywhere for his authoritative credentials, “what about poor people who don’t have transport? This is utterly shameful.”
Zimbabwe won its independence from white settler rule in 1980, educated a vast cadre of productive African industrialists and entrepreneurs, and then turned away from political and economic development advances in the 1990s, when Mugabe captured the state for himself and his family, and for underlings like Mnangagwa. Subsequently, he destroyed what had been a thriving agricultural economy, printed money and drove inflation upward into the multi-thousand percentages. Free speech was curtailed, but there were opposition newspapers, and political campaigns were open even if the actual elections were often rigged. Now, however, Mnangagwa – known everywhere as a heavy lidded “Crocodile,” is taking no chances. The election in August can hardly be considered fair or free if opposition political contenders must remain narrowly “patriotic.”
Mnangagwa may be taking a solid lesson from Putin, who criminalizes criticism, locking away his opponents. Job Sikhala, a persistent Zimbabwean opposition lawmaker, in May was convicted of “obstructing justice” in his country and sent to a maximum security prison for year.
Patriotism is a good thing – until it becomes weaponized as in Zimbabwe, China, and Russia. If Mnangagwa wins another presidential term at the polls in August, it will be a tribute to his dominance of Zimbabwe’s media, his friendships with traditional chiefs, and -- not least – to his oppression of opponents and his and his regime’s disdain of democracy and democratic processes.