Zimbabwe Cracks Down On Critics

About 200 Zimbabwe riot police block off a street in central Harare Saturday Feb. 3, 2001, to prevent some 150 journalists and media workers from holding a march to protest the recent bombing of the independent Daily News newspaper's printing press. (AP PHOTO/Rob Cooper)
AP
The request sounds frivolous: A group of Zimbabwe's ruling party lawmakers and fundamentalist Christian clerics have petitioned President Robert Mugabe's government to ban an opposition party's open hand salute.

They claim the Movement for Democratic Change's (MDC) salute gives political connotations to normal greetings and farewells. In the petition, submitted to the government Wednesday, they said the open hand-waving motion meant those not affiliated to the party were uncomfortable when meeting or leaving loved ones.

"Waving hands is an international symbol of happiness created by God and using it on political grounds is a total violation of human rights," the petition said.

The petition might seem ridiculous in most countries — not just silly, but an obvious affront to free speech. Not in Zimbabwe.

Consider events of the last two weeks:

  • One day after the government's information minister described the independent Zimbabwe Daily News as a threat to national security, a bomb severely damaged the paper's printing press on Jan. 28. It was the second such bombing of an independent daily in less than a year. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack.
  • The government forced the country's independent chief judge to resign on Feb. 2 after a series of anti-government rulings. In recent months, the government has harshly criticized Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay and his colleagues on the Supreme Court, and violent ruling party activists have threatened several of the judges with death.
  • As part of a wider crackdown on anti-government demonstrations the following day, Feb. 3, journalists who had gathered to protest the bombing of the Daily News and other limits on press freedom were forcefully dispersed by police.
  • The government arrested two MDC opposition party leaders earlier this week on charges of inciting violence against the government. The arrests came one day after the MDC said one of its members of parliament and his wife were severely beaten up on Monday by unidentified assailants who drove up to their home in army trucks.
And of course, all of this is taking place against the backdrop of Mugabe's campaign to forcibly seize white-owned farms and redistribute them to landless black Zimbabweans — a campaign declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But the government said Thursday it will ignore the latest of six court orders demanding that police remove illegal squatters from the white-owned farms.
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So, in Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe, a petition to ban a hand signal should be taken seriously.

The MDC launched the open hand salute on its formation in 1999 to denote openness against the clenched fist salute of Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, which has been in power since independence in 1980. MDC party leaders dismissed the petition as a "laughable" propaganda ploy.

It's not hard to discern a pattern here: violence against the press and restrictions on free speech; muzzling the independent judiciary; jailing the ruling party's political opponents. Mugabe's government appears to be increasingly brazen in its tactics, or at the least, in turning a blind eye to attacks on its opponents and critics.

It's also not hard to understand why. In last June's parliamentary elections, the opposition won 57 seats, leaving Mugabe's ruling party with a slim majority of the 120 elected seats, and threatening the president's 20-year reign. In the previous parliament, Mugabe controlled all but three seats.

With his popularity bottoming out, it's understandable that Mugabe wants to consolidate power and stifle criticism ahead of next year's presidential election.

But he should know that the world is watching. Following the Daily News bombing, the European Union issued a statement expressing concern about press freedom in Zimbabwe.

In an open letter to Mugabe, the Committee to Protect Journalists was more frank: "These violent attacks appear to be part of a deeply disturbing campaign against the Daily News and its staff, which have suffered frequent and ongoing harassment at the hands of police and top-ranking officials of the ruling ZANU-PF."

Mugabe should consider the fate of his former ally in Congo, Laurent Kabila. Like Mugabe, Kabila was a paranoid dictator with a worldview shaped by colonial-era politics. And like Mugabe, Kabila had a dim view of critics. Kabila, of course, was murdered January 16 by his bodyguard.

By ROB MANK
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