SW Radio Africa (London)

Zimbabwe: Police Block Public Debate On Constitution in Harare

The police have yet again come under heavy criticism after blocking a public meeting organized by the Media Centre in Harare on Wednesday. The public debate on the draft constitution, was to include senior members of ZANU PF and the MDC formations, ZAPU, Mavambo Dawn/Kusile political parties and the National Constitutional Assembly.

One of the scheduled speakers, the President of the MDC-99 Job Sikhala, said he was notified by the Media Center on the morning of the discussion and told that the police had banned the indaba.

Sikhala told SW Radio Africa he was told the police banned the meeting for a number of reasons including the issue of how panelists were selected. The police also said they are "no longer allowing public meetings to be convened by NGOs outside the arrangements of government."

Talking about the popularity of meetings arranged by civic groups Sikhala said: "They are extremely popular. Zimbabweans are anxious to hear how their country is going to move forward. These are well advertised platforms for Zimbabweans to express their democratic views and the police officers are now becoming more and more dangerous in curtailing the democratic discourse in our country."

Sikhala urged the NGOs to challenge this latest police ban in the courts and also said they must 'start organizing demonstrations against such clampdowns."

We were not able to get the police to comment.

A law that police frequently use to silence the masses is the repressive Public Order and Security Act (POSA).

Recently the parliamentary watchdog, Bill Watch, issued a report about the

MDC-T Mutare Central legislator, Innocent Gonese, trying to revive the POSA Amendment bill in the Senate: " On Tuesday 19th February Mr Gonese, the MP who introduced the POSA [Public Order and Security Act] Amendment Bill, tried valiantly, with the help of MDC Senators, to persuade the Senate to vote for his motion to revive the lapsed motion from the previous session seeking the Bill's restoration to the Senate Order Paper.

The ZANU-PF Senators who spoke opposed the motion, claiming Mr Gonese had withdrawn the Bill when he agreed to the POSA issue being dealt with at GPA Principals level.

The facts, according to Hansard, were: in August 2011 Senators had asked for more time to examine the Bill, and Minister Chinamasa had objected to the Bill on the ground that the POSA issue was under consideration by the GPA negotiators as part of the Roadmap to Elections; but Mr Gonese did not withdraw the Bill and the Roadmap negotiations did not result in agreed amendment or replacement of POSA.

After over an hour of debate a vote was taken and Mr Gonese's motion was rejected by 28 votes to 17. The vote illustrates ZANU-PF's domination of the Senate; the Chiefs who voted followed the ZANU-PF lead.

However, Bill Watch said this is not necessarily the end of the Bill saying: "Gonese is to table a motion in the House of Assembly asking that the Bill, as passed by the House in December 2009, be sent to the President for assent, despite the Senate's rejection of his motion."

Constitutional Minister Eric Matinenga had called for the suspension of POSA and he said he was surprised that the police had banned the Media Centre public gathering.

"If this is the position it's very sad because I had actually been saying this unpacking of the draft should be done as expansively as possible. I am concerned if that indeed is the position."

"In fact as I speak to you I have written a letter to the co-Home Affairs Ministers, suggesting that during the outreach programme we did not really apply POSA strictly and there is no reason why that relaxed approach should not be applied today when we are now seeking to create awareness on the part of the public about the contents of the constitution," Matinenga revealed.

The latest development comes as police is escalating their clampdown on civil society organizations, as the country prepares for crucial elections.

Deputy police commissioner-general responsible for operations, Innocent Matibiri, told a parliamentary portfolio committee on Home Affairs earlier this week the police will also target NGOs that have been distributing shortwave radios in the country and will confiscate radio receivers from listeners.

According to the state controlled media hundred of radios, which people use to listen to external radio stations, have been confiscated already and some distributors arrested across the country. A number of NGOs, such as the Zimbabwe Peace Project, have fallen victim to police raids and confiscations of communication equipment.

The move was slammed by many, including the Regional Integration and International Cooperation Minister Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga who protested by walking into Tuesday's cabinet with a radio and is said to have demanded to know how the receivers are illegal.

Misihairabwi -Mushonga, who is also the MDC Secretary General, had earlier addressed a meeting in Gwanda where she challenged the police to arrest her for owning the shortwave receiver.

"I have the little radios here, if the cops want to arrest me they can come. It's a right for everybody to listen to information that they want. Surely how can we have a situation where when you touch a radio you are arrested. If I had more of them I would have given you and see if they arrest us all and take us to jail," said Mushonga.

"Because it is nonsensical that in a country that was liberated we are still being denied the right to listen to what we want to listen to. We won the right to listen to whatever we want to listen to because it is there in the new constitution," she said.

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