Maverick Citizen

HUMAN RIGHTS DAY OP-ED

New Zimbabwean NGO bill threatens freedom of expression and civic space

New Zimbabwean NGO bill threatens freedom of expression and civic space
(Photo: powerpublish.io / Wikipedia)

On Human Rights Day, let’s spare a thought for Zimbabweans who face new threats to the civic space and freedom of expression that is so vital to democracy.

Human Rights Day in South Africa is historically linked with 21 March 1960, and the events of Sharpeville. On that day, 69 people died and 180 were wounded when police fired on a peaceful crowd that had gathered in protest against the “pass laws”. This day marked an affirmation by ordinary people, rising in unison to proclaim their rights. It became an iconic date in South Africa’s history and today it is commemorated as Human Rights Day after being proclaimed as a public holiday by South Africa’s first democratic President, Tata Nelson Mandela.

On this day, South Africans are asked to reflect on their rights, to protect their rights and the rights of all people from violation, irrespective of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, whether they are foreign nationals or not – human rights apply to everyone, equally.

One right to reflect on and protect, which is interlinked with all other rights, is the right to free expression. 

Section 16(1) of South Africa’s Constitution states that:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

This right is also provided for in Article 9 of the African Charter on Human  and People’s Rights which states that every individual shall have the right to receive information and to express and disseminate his or her opinions within the law.

The African Charter and many other international human rights norms are applicable to countries beyond the borders of South Africa as long as they have ratified the treaty. Zimbabwe is one such nation. 

Unfortunately, Zimbabwe gazetted a Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill on 5 November 2021 and in March 2022 announced in Parliament that public hearings on the bill would begin in the same month. 

If passed into law, this bill would provide the government with unfettered discretionary power to overregulate and interfere in non-government organisations’ governance and operations. For instance, its provisions provide the government with unchecked power to designate any PVO as “high risk” or “vulnerable” to terrorism abuse, allowing them to revoke a PVO’s registration and remove or replace its leadership. In addition, to avoid civil penalties, PVOs would be required to receive approval from the government for any “material change”, including changes to its management and internal constitution. Furthermore, PVOs would be prohibited from supporting or opposing any political party or candidate.

We should all be gravely concerned about the bill’s potential to unduly restrict freedom of expression and civic space.

Zimbabwe is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which among other things guarantees the right and freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds under Article 19. The same Article protects political discourse, commentary on one’s own or public affairs, canvassing, discussion of human rights and journalism.

Further, the 1999 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders points out that states have a duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms, including every person’s right, individually and in association with others, “at national and international levels … to form, join and participate in non-governmental organisations, associations or groups” and to “solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means”.

Freedom of expression is an enabling right from which other rights, such as freedom of association, are derived. It is for this reason that the contravention of Article 19 of the ICCPR in the proposed PVO Amendment Bill is particularly worrying.

While the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, the PVO Amendment Bill does not serve a legitimate purpose, neither is it necessary. The government has given two reasons why it felt compelled to propose such a bill for promulgation into law by Parliament, namely requirements to comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations and the need to prohibit NGOs from involvement in politics. However, the PVO Amendment Bill is neither proportionate nor targeted in accordance with FATF (Recommendation 8) standards.

Moreover, civil society organisations have expressed legitimate concerns over the PVO Amendment Bill’s contravention of national, regional, and international standards of freedom of expression and that of association. 

Musa Kika, the Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, said the bill was a crackdown on civic space in the country.

“The government of Zimbabwe has over the past few years been systematically decimating the foundation of democratic practice through regressive law reform, consolidating authoritarianism. As we head towards what appear to be defining elections in 2023, the government is grabbing the moment to gag NGOs, using the convenient smoke screen of compliance with the Financial Action Task Force charge on the Zimbabwean government to comply with regulations on money laundering and terrorism financing. 

The bill seeks to subject NGOs to excessive and undesirable executive control, limiting the scope of what NGOs can do, and imposing serious hurdles to registration compliance and stiff penalties for noncompliance.”

Zimbabwe banned all NGO operations in 2008, a few weeks before the presidential run-off election, after accusing NGOs of supporting the opposition party. The ban affected humanitarian aid efforts and was eventually lifted the following year.

Moreover, on 17 December 2021, four UN Special Rapporteurs sent a joint communication to the President of Zimbabwe, expressing their concerns over the PVO Amendment Bill’s legality and infringement upon the right to freedom of association. They stressed that the PVO Bill grants unchecked discretion to authorities and its provisions contain overly broad and vague language ripe for abuses against politically disfavored organisations.

The government’s unrestricted power to deregister, target, and harass PVOs deemed critical of the government not only violates the fundamental right to freedom of association, but also undermines the critical role PVOs play in a democratic society. Civil society has three primary functions, namely: 

  1. Self-governance of people by the people whereby people are able to self-organise through civil society;
  2. Being a partner to the government. This is because government is put in place by the people and both parties are to hold each other accountable;
  3. To help solve local problems. This is because citizens have a responsibility over issues of societal concern and the vehicle through which people solve their community problems is civil society. 

Further, the potential barriers to registration of PVOs and the burdensome operating requirements will impact a broad range of PVOs, including churches and charities, disrupting vital services that these entities provide to their communities such as legal aid work and humanitarian support.

We, as the Campaign for Free Expression, urge the Parliament of Zimbabwe to delay debate on the PVO Amendment Bill until it meets local, regional and international standards and best practices for the exercise of freedom of expression, free association and the right to privacy and to embark on a wide-ranging consultative process to draw up a bill that enhances democracy and does not undermine it. DM/MC

Margaret Zulu is regional programme manager for the Campaign for Free Expression (CFE).

The CFE is a non-profit organisation dedicated to protecting and expanding the right to free expression for all and enabling everyone to exercise this right to the full, whether by speaking out, by protesting, by revealing information, by blowing the whistle on wrongdoing, by arguing, debating, writing, painting, composing or just by shouting out an opinion. [email protected]

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