As 2023 drew to a close, Zimbabwean citizens were alerted to the plight of a Bindura man who had spent nearly a month languishing in jail for allegedly insulting President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Patrick Kingirasi, an unemployed resident of Bindura in Mashonaland Central province – considered a stronghold of Mnangagwa and his Zanu-PF party – was arrested on 18 November 2023 and charged with undermining the authority or insulting the head of state and government as defined by Section 33(2)(b) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.
Prosecutors alleged that Kingirasi undermined and insulted Mnangagwa on 2 October 2023 when he called one Edison Chibaya using his mobile phone and made utterances to the effect that members of the ruling Zanu-PF were thieves.
The prosecutors further charged that Kingirasi blamed Mnangagwa for causing suffering among Zimbabweans and for authoring the prevailing economic crisis.
He is alleged to have said: “Do not be thievery in ZANU PF way with your Mnangagwa, who is causing us to suffer.”
The prosecutors deemed the alleged utterances unlawful, intentional and abusive. He was imprisoned after his arrest only to be released a few days before Christmas courtesy of the timely intervention of Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), who represented him and got him bailed out.
Kingirasi is not the only one in this predicament, where the law is being weaponised to silence critics of the government under the guise of protecting the dignity of the office of the president.
A number of citizens continue to be arrested, detained and prosecuted. According to human rights defenders, there has been an increase in the number of Zimbabwean citizens who have fallen foul of Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act in the past few months.
A case similar to Kingarisi’s that emerged at the end of 2023, which also highlighted the continued prosecution of citizens for allegedly insulting Mnangagwa, involved Blessed Mhembere (22) of Chitungwiza.
Mhembere was accused of “moving around a bus terminus, shouting at the top of his voice”, calling for the removal of the Zimbabwean president. He spent nearly a month in jail before being released on bail during the second week of December. He is due in court in the next few weeks.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Cry Zimbabwe – Zanu-PF plans to rule forever
According to human rights defenders, this is a worrying trend which shows that the new dispensation is refusing to break from the past to allow unfettered free expression, whereby citizens are free to voice opinions about the office of the president.
Over the past two years ZLHR has recorded 40 cases of citizens being arrested and prosecuted on charges of undermining or insulting Mnangagwa, an indication that the authorities are hell-bent on continuing to use Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act to silence citizens like Kingirasi and Mhembere.
While the use of insult laws to gag citizens was rampant during the long reign of the late Zanu-PF leader and former president Robert Mugabe, during which more than 200 cases were recorded by ZLHR, they expected that Mnangagwa’s dispensation would expunge this provision in line with his mantra that Zimbabwe is “open for business”.
While the authorities could be within their rights to justify the use of Section 33 to protect the dignity of the office of the president, critics say this piece of legislation should not be weaponised to take away citizens’ right to express their views and opinions about the president himself.
As it stands, the increased use of Section 33 on citizens is an affront to freedom of expression and freedom of the media as it violates Section 61 of the constitution of Zimbabwe.
Section 61 guarantees freedom of expression through (a) the freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information; and (b) the freedom of artistic expression and scientific research and creativity.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Warfare State — why Zimbabwe under Zanu-PF will not progress
The provision also violates Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The provisions from these three continental and international statutes are instructive.
Article 9 of the African Charter on Human Rights states: (1) every individual shall have the right to receive information; and (2) every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate her or his opinions within the law. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression – this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media.
Read more in Daily Maverick: In honour of the memory and legacy of Eswatini rights lawyer, comrade Thulani Rudolf Maseko
Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through other media of his or her choice.
So, President Mnangagwa, allow citizens to freely express themselves. DM
Njabulo Ncube is a Harare-based freelance journalist and a representative of the Campaign for Free Expression. He can be contacted on email: [email protected]