The Stream

Is Zimbabwe criminalising dissent?

On Thursday, January 21 at 19:30 GMT:
The recent arrest and detention of three prominent critics of Zimbabwe’s government is again raising concerns over how laws are applied against voices of dissent.

Independent journalist Hopewell Chin’ono was taken into police custody on January 8 after he published social media posts about the alleged killing of a baby by a police officer in Harare. Police later said the baby was alive, but the true identity of its mother remains murky. Chin’ono faces charges of spreading ‘falsehoods’, and remains in Chikurubi prison after being denied bail.

Two senior members of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change Alliance (MDC) were later arrested on the same charge after they also published social media posts about the alleged police brutality incident. Job Sikhala is remanded in custody, while Fadzayi Mahere is out on bail.

The ruling Zanu-PF party says the law was applied fairly, as per the separation of powers expected in a constitutional democracy. But human rights groups including Amnesty International are alarmed at the latest arrests and say Zimbabwean law is being weaponised against those trying to hold authorities to account, whether they be journalists exposing corruption or prominent opposition movement voices. All three high-profile figures have criticised the ruling Zanu-PF party in the past, and have been detained by police before – on charges such as obstructing justice, inciting violence during anti-government protests in July 2020, and flouting anti-coronavirus measures.

Lawyers supportive of Chin’ono, Sikhala and Mahere say the latest charges they face are in fact unconstitutional, as the falsehoods law was struck down by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court in 2014. Their concerns over the fair application of laws follows a statement by a pan-African jurists’ forum that judicial independence in Zimbabwe is under threat at a time when authorities are increasingly repressive.

As people across Zimbabwe continue to struggle with poor job prospects and high inflation and wonder aloud about the future under President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government, we’ll look at what the latest arrest of government critics suggests about free expression in Zimbabwe – and what may happen next. Join the conversation.

In this episode of The Stream, we are joined by:
Bright Matonga, @DrMatonga
Political analyst and former Zimbabwean deputy information minister

Doug Coltart, @DougColtart
Human rights and constitutional lawyer

Tendai Biti, @BitiTendai
Vice President, Movement for Democratic Change Alliance