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Criminalising Freedom of Expression closer to an Election

The Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) is deeply concerned by the recent criminal conviction in the Zimbabwe Magistrates Court of Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga and her co-accused Julie Barnes for inciting public violence for participating in a peaceful protest. Dangarembga and Barnes were found guilty of contravening section 37(1)(b) of the Zimbabwe Criminal Code for participating in a “public gathering with intent to incite violence” and were sentenced to a suspended 6-month jail term. The two were arrested in July 2020 for participating in a peaceful protest and holding placards with the words, “We want better, reform our institutions” and “Free our journalists.”

The Constitution of Zimbabwe protects the right to freedom of expression, demonstration and assembly in sections 58 and 59. Arresting and charging Dangarembga and Barns demonstrates an unreasonable limitation of these rights.

The clampdown on protests by persons voicing concerns over corruption and the worsening economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe has worsened with increasing violations of the right to freedom of expression concerning persons who expressed dissenting views and the use of arbitrary arrests against activists, journalists, and protesters.

In 2021, Hopewell Chin’ono was arrested three times in six months. He was charged with inciting violence after voicing support for an anti-government protest, contempt of court after allegedly claiming corruption within the national prosecution agency, and another charge of communicating falsehoods.

The African Commission, through Resolution 281, has condemned the severe restrictions imposed by some member states on fundamental rights and freedoms with specific reference to freedom of expression and the right to peaceful demonstration and the arbitrary arrests and detentions and killings of peaceful demonstrators and called on state parties to refrain from conducting arbitrary arrests and detentions of demonstrators and to abide by their regional and international obligations fully.

With Zimbabwe scheduled to hold its general elections in 2023, SALC calls on SADC and the African Union to ensure that the country abides by its international and national obligations to protect civil and political rights. Voter education, lobbying for legislative and institutional reform, observing elections, monitoring, documenting, and reporting human rights violations, and providing critical services to victims of human rights violations should be prioritised during this period