Zimbabwe journalist charged for allegedly insulting Mangagwa in a tweet

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Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa.
Jekesai Njikizana /AFP
  • A Zimbabwean journalist is in trouble for "insulting or undermining the authority of the president".
  • The Committee to Protect Journalists has urged presidents to have a greater tolerance for criticism and debate.
  • Those disaffected by President Emmerson Mnangagwa's rule are increasingly venting their frustrations by mocking him.

About a year before Zimbabwe's general elections, where President Emmerson Mnangagwa will seek re-election for a second and last term, the country's "insult law" is increasingly being used.

The latest to fall foul of the law is journalist Mduduzi Mathuthu, who could face up to a year in jail for "insulting or undermining the authority of the president" by contravention of Section 33 of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

For two weeks, the law and order section of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) had been hunting down the journalist until his lawyer, Nqobani Sithole, escorted him to the Bulawayo central police station on Monday, where he was formally charged.

It is alleged that Mathuthu posted a tweet that Mnangagwa had addressed the nation under the influence of alcohol when he announced the suspension of banks from their core business of lending.

READ | Mugabe-era Zimbabweans who fled to Botswana lose political refugee status after court ruling

It's a script from the Robert Mugabe era, according to media activist Njabulo Ncube from the Zimbabwe Editors Forum (ZINEF).

"Nothing has changed under Mnangagwa. This is what Robert Mugabe did when under pressure from the public over his failed policies," he said.

Angela Quintal, Africa programme coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said: "Presidents are public figures and should have a greater tolerance for criticism and debate without [the] police having to waste resources to defend their reputations."

Onslaught against dissent

This year alone, many have fallen foul of the law.

Those disaffected by Mnangagwa's rule are increasingly venting their frustrations by mocking him. 

To mention a few, a 48-year-old Maria Mapfumo was in March charged under the law for accusing Zanu-PF official Bernard Dangi and Mnangagwa of having the potential to kill her husband, a teacher, because he had engaged in politics.

Mehlo Mpala, a 42-year-old man from Hwange in Matabeleland North, was charged for laughing at a man who was wearing Zanu-PF regalia with Mnangagwa's face, which he called "rubbish".

Lawyer Noble Chinhanu, of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, found himself representing six MDC Alliance activists in February who allegedly told police officers on duty that they were Mnangagwa's dogs.

In defence of his clients, Chinhanu said calling the police Mnangagwa's dogs was a compliment.

"If the accused meant that the office of the police officers can be construed as Mnangagwa's dogs, in the sense that they are in the loyal service of the state, and Mnangagwa is the head of the state, one wonders why we are even wasting resources on this case."

History of the insult law

In 1982, the government passed a law banning citizens from joking about the president's surname. 

At the time, Robert Mugabe was prime minister and the ceremonial president was Canaan Banana. Jokes involving bananas could lead to jail time.

READ | With R2500, we can smuggle you into SA - Zimbabwe traffickers

When Mugabe became executive president in 1987, that meant joking about him was also outlawed.

In 2015, there were calls for the law to be scrapped but, as vice-president at the time, Mnangagwa said it was a reasonable law that "seeks to guarantee the right to dignity" of the president.

However, in most cases, those found guilty have got away with a level six fine, which today would be Z$4 800 [about US$13.26 or R200].

A 2018 Columbia Human Rights Review article by Amal Clooney and Phillippa Webb argues that similar laws are used in other countries where those in power seek to silence those critical of them.

"It is currently a crime in many countries around the world to insult one of the three 'Rs' – rulers, religion, or royals – and people are being prosecuted for such insults in criminal and military courts."

The News24 Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation. 
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