Flag ban: The making of a Police State

HARARE - While E putting on national flag colours is seen in most countries as a show of unwavering patriotism, in Zimbabwe the banner is now the source of potential criminality and imprisonment. 

In other countries across the globe, citizens including school children are taught proper flag etiquette including  how to fold  it, properly raise and lower it, when to fly it half-mast, how to properly destroy a damaged flag and that it must never be left to touch the ground.

But the government here now sees the flag as a symbol of protest after Pastor Evan Mawarire, who has been forced into self-imposed exile, used the national flag to articulate his gripe against government, which quickly drew the attention and support of other citizens both at home and abroad.

This was deemed an act of subversion by President Robert Mugabe’s government as it accused protesters of “using the flag to whip up political emotions against the constitutionally elected government.”

The State’s response has been to use its repressive instruments, including violence and restrictive laws.

Pandemonium broke out in Parliament last month after police stormed the National Assembly and roughed up opposition legislators in a bizarre attempt to eject an MDC MP, Costa Machingauta, for wearing a jacket adorned in the national flag colours.

The lawmaker was wearing a jacket in the green, gold, red and black colours of the national flag.

Citizens do not want to be associated with the flag anymore after restrictions were introduced on its use. 

“We cannot even celebrate the victories of the country’s national soccer team, the Warriors, wrapped in the national colours lest our celebrations are misconstrued to be protests. We have become prisoners in our own country,” said Tapera Musoni, an avid supporter of the national football team.

He added jokingly that he sometimes worry about the safety of Rastafarians who put on clothes bearing national colours, saying they ran the risk of being bashed by law enforcement agents.    

Justice ministry permanent secretary Virginia Mabhiza has warned citizens that using the flag without the government’s permission is punishable by a fine of $300, a jail term of up to one year, or both.

Mabhiza cited Flag of Zimbabwe Act, an obscure law that makes it illegal to “burn, mutilate or otherwise insult the national flag ... in circumstances which are calculated or likely to show disrespect ...or to bring [it] into disrepute.”

“There are certain things that people do that are tantamount to abuse and disrespect of the national flag,” she said.

Interestingly there is a lacuna in the law. It’s silent about what constitutes “disrespect,” giving authorities an opportunity to interpret it to their convenience.

This legal vacuum has seen the opposition MDC legislator for Mutasa Central, Trevor Saruwaka being barred from joining the traditional procession during the official opening of Parliament for wearing the same national flag jacket.

In a statement, Saruwaka whose ban remains effective and Parliament security has told him they would not allow him in the National Assembly until he is cleared by Speaker of the House Jacob Mudenda.

He has challenged the ban in court, and eagerly awaits a determination.

“My prayer is that the High Court is going to treat the matter with the urgency it deserves. So far, their appetite to set down the matter is very low and this clear violation of the country’s constitution and abuse of standing rules and orders of Parliament by the speaker must be stopped,” Saruwaka charged.

“If MPs don’t enjoy rights enshrined in the constitution in Parliament what chances are there that the people of Muponda village in Mutasa Central will enjoy them? Nil,” he said, describing the development as “a sad chapter in the in the lives of all free thinking Zimbabweans”.

“I am shocked because I didn’t know it’s a criminal offense to be patriotic,” Saruwaka said.

Legal expert Alex Magaisa said he is not surprised that the Zanu PF government has moved to invoke the existing legislation, hitherto unused, as a way of stopping citizens from using the national flag in their protests.

“Once again the government fails to attend to the causes of the protests and goes after the symptom,” he said, adding the legislation under which the government was acting was unconstitutional and should be challenged.

The national flag legislation gives arbitrary powers to the president, creates vague, ambiguous and indeterminate offences over the use or application of the national flag and imposes penalties that are excessive and disproportionate to the said offences.

“The law does not articulate the circumstances under which they would be committing an offence or acting lawfully. It leaves arbitrary powers in the hands of the authorities. For this reason the law does not protect citizens but rather, it imperils them.”

He said the latest move shows the Zimbabwean government’s ridiculous determination to create a police state.

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