1 December 2013

Zimbabwe: Controversial Presidential Insult Law Ruled Unconstitutional

'To learn who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.' So goes a popular quip attributed to the philosopher Voltaire. For many years, Zimbabweans have been painfully aware of this thanks to the so-called 'insult law.' Section 33 of Zimbabwe's Criminal Codification and Reform Act stipulated that the crime of denigrating Zimbabwe's head of state - Robert Mugabe since 1987 - carried a maximum of a year in jail, whilst section 31 stated that 'communicating falsehoods' could result in a maximum of 20 years behind bars.

But what exactly constitutes 'insulting' and how are 'falsehoods' defined? The long held ambiguity surrounding the law may have come to an end on 6 November when Zimbabwe's constitutional court ruled that the laws criminalizing 'undermining the authority of the president and communicating falsehoods' are unconstitutional.

This ruling is a step in the right direction because it allows Zimbabwean citizens to discuss - and criticize - the president and his decisions. Here's why.

First, it demonstrates aptly how a single person's refusal to be cowered can lead to change. We can all draw lessons, as a society, from the courage of Owen Maseko, whose appeal led to the act being declared unconstitutional. The prominent artist was arrested in March 2010 after a painting exhibition with depictions of the 1980s Gukurahundi massacres which incorporated Mugabe. The exhibition was called 'Let It Drip'- an allusion to the blood that flowed during that time - and showed hangings and torture perpetrated by the state. It was promptly shut down, after which Maseko spent several days in jail.

Invoking Rosa Parks

The story of Maseko is reminiscent of Rosa Parks and other heroes and heroines of various struggles in different eras and regions who, by simple acts of defiance, led to significant change. He has remained defiant and continues to freely express himself through art and hopefully this ruling will enable him to showcase his art without hindrance.

Second, the ruling puts to test the sincerity of the government's commitment to upholding the lofty values of freedom and constitutionality, which it claims to espouse. The developments of the next few weeks - during which invariably someone will, perhaps in drunken stupor, disparage President Mugabe - will show whether this ruling means anything at all.

What is an insult?

What's more, in the eyes of the law, the distinction between insults, allegorical comparisons and criticism was unclear, if at all existent. The ruling to do away with the law will, I expect, make these ambiguities a moot point.

Think of the time wasted when MDC-T youth leader Solomon Madzore was arrested for allegedly calling Mugabe a 'limping donkey' who was hindering the progress of Tsvangirai, whom he likened to a fast horse in the recently concluded ended unity government. Madzore used the Shona phrase 'dongi rinokamhina', which means a lame draught animal that can no longer work and must be put out to pasture.

Then there was the Great Zimbabwe University lecturer Chenjerai Pamhiri. He was arrested twice for insulting President Mugabe. The first time he allegedly called Mugabe 'a dirty, rotten, old donkey'. He was tried, found guilty and was sentenced to three months, but successfully appealed against both conviction and sentence.

Pamhiri was recently arrested again for reportedly labeling President Mugabe 'an impotent wife snatcher'. The state university has since sacked him.

Zimbabwe Peace Project

The insult law was challenged together with another infamous law about 'communicating falsehoods' by Vincent Kahiya and Constantine Chimakure. The two journalists were in 2009 accused of publishing falsehoods, after they published a story in which senior police officers were fingered as being behind the abduction of some MDC-T activists, as well as Zimbabwe Peace Project director Jestina Mukoko.There are also many other stories in which people criticized the president only to find themselves hauled before the courts. Overzealous ZANU-PF supporters and the police often took criticism to mean insults, and vice versa. This cost the courts valuable time as most of the cases were thrown out for lack of merit.

Free expression

In sum: the scrapping of this archaic and pernicious law is a very positive development that may be a hint of government reform. I hope it leads to more openness and transparency in government affairs. I also hope this goes a long way in promoting and protecting media freedom, Zimbabweans' right to free expression and also in destroying the cult of personality that usually results when leaders are seen as infallible, as is the case with for instance the North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Interestingly, President Mugabe himself has never publicly commented on the law.

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