Presidential insult laws must be abolished

HARARE - A Harare court yesterday refused to prosecute a war veterans’ leader under an archaic law that punishes insulting the president with a one year jail term.

Prosecutors dropped charges of undermining the authority of the president against war veterans leader Victor Matemadanda, reflecting greater judicial independence under new President Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Matemadanda — who was represented by leading rights attorney Beatrice Mtetwa — was a harsh critic of Mugabe who was pressured to resign by the army and ruling Zanu PF party a fortnight ago after 37 years in power.

Matemadanda, along with other executive members of his war veterans association, were arrested in July last year for allegedly penning a damning communiqué that denounced Mugabe for running down the country, formenting divisions and being manipulative in general.

The crackdown against dissent has been central to Mugabe’s authoritarian drive. The freedom to lampoon political leaders is one of the crucial differences between liberal democracies and authoritarian states. Freedom of expression simply cannot be negotiated with autocrats, dictators or bullies.

Mnangagwa has been rightly praised for refusing to use laws that undermine freedom of expression.

After all, Zimbabwe’s highest court has declared unconstitutional the draconian law which makes it a crime to insult the president. At least 80 cases have been filed in recent years under the law but there has not been a single conviction.

Under Section 33 of the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, a person could be jailed for up to a year or fined $100 for insulting the president’s office.

A new Constitution approved by 95 percent of Zimbabweans in a 2013 referendum expanded civil liberties.

Yet Mugabe remained in the propensity of punishing free speech under the guise of national security or insult laws, simply to silence dissent.

It is refreshing that Mnangagwa — an attorney-at-law —  is taking a different route.

After all, the international law framework governing freedom of expression is clearly contained in treaty law: Articles 19 and 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

There are also relevant but broadly-worded provisions on freedom of expression in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The withdrawal of presidential insult charges against Matemadanda is a victory for free speech and a further step away from state censorship powers.

Mnangagwa must now move towards total abolition of insult laws.