Zimbabwe Outlaws Criticism of Government Ahead of Elections

The "Patriotic Bill" criminalizes comments that damage "the national interest of Zimbabwe." The move comes just months before the next election.

Lawmakers in Zimbabwe passed a controversial bill late on Wednesday that outlaws criticism of the country's government.

The bill, which is due to be signed into law soon by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, has sparked fears of a potential crackdown on dissent.

The bill was passed just hours after the government announced that parliamentary and presidential elections will be held on August 23 this year, with Mnangagwa seeking to secure a second term.

What is the 'Patriotic Bill?'

Much of the outcry over the so-called "Patriotic Bill" stems from one clause that criminalizes acts that damage "the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe."

In severe cases, those found guilty could face up to 20 years in prison, news agency AFP reported.

Zimbabwe's ruling ZANU-PF party have defended the bill, saying it encourages the country's over 15 million inhabitants to be "patriotic."

"This bill is not meant to curtail the existence of political parties but it is there to encourage the people of Zimbabwe to love their country and stop denouncing it," ZANU-PF lawmaker Joseph Chinotimba told Parliament.

How has the opposition reacted?

Rights groups, activists and opposition politicians sounded the alarm over the bill's passage, saying it aims to ban any criticism of the government in the southern African nation.

They warn that the clause will be used to punish civil society organizations, citizens and political parties that oppose the ZANU-PF party.

"Free speech is now dead," journalist and activist Hopewell Chin'ono wrote on Twitter, adding it was "a very sad day for Zimbabwe."

A spokesperson for the opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) described the bill as "dangerous."

"ZANU-PF has reduced our great nation into an outpost of tyranny," CCC spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere told Reuters news agency.

What happens next?

Now that the bill has been passed by Zimbabwe's lower house, the National Assembly, it will go to the Senate for approval.

President Mnangagwa is expected to then sign it into law.

The 80-year-old leader replaced Zimbabwe's strongman ruler Robert Mugabe in 2017 following a military-led coup.

His primary challenger is the head of the CCC, Nelson Chamisa. The 45-year-old is a lawyer and a pastor, who narrowly lost to Mnangagwa in elections in 2018.

Rights groups are bracing for the impact of the new bill to hit as campaigning intensifies ahead of elections this August.

"This bill is the most draconian law that we have seen in Zimbabwe," the head of the Human Rights NGO Forum, Musa Kika told AFP.

rs/dj (AFP, Reuters)

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