Our rulers have found a perfect excuse to justify attacks on the media. The United Kingdom has on its statute books a Victorian law, the Treason and Felony Act which makes it a criminal offence, punishable by life imprisonment, to advocate abolition of the monarchy.
Because the British monarchy is protected by this ancient piece of legislation, reasons our rulers, Zimbabwean journalists should not vilify President Robert Mugabe (who apparently is not a monarchy).
Let us recall though that senior politburo member in Zanu PF Didymus Mutasa once said RG was our monarchy!
Information minister Webster Shamu, usually an affable fellow and a friend of the media, at the weekend plumbed to depths of desperation by threatening to withdraw licences of private media houses which he said continued to vilify the President.
To illustrate that President Mugabe should be shielded from attacks by the media, Shamu thought he had found a perfect Act to follow by citing the UK’s Treason and Felony Act as a precedent.
The Zanu PF government has over the years attempted to justify State misfeasance and repression by quoting repressive laws and retrogressive Acts in other jurisdictions; the most telling one being the use of torture.
There was a time when our rulers were quick to point out the use of torture by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay in response to accusations that state security institutions here were using torture systemically against suspects and political opponents.
Is it not embarrassing that we have leaders who feel comfortable with citing bad legislation from elsewhere to legitimise attacks on fundamental freedoms?
Shamu’s reference to the Treason and Felony Act is an embarrassing dramatisation of the quest to ring-fence the “throne” using discredited laws.
For the record, it must be noted that Britain has never attempted to use the old law to close a newspaper.
In a 2003 House of Lords case brought by The Guardian newspaper against the Attorney General, the Lords declined to decide whether it was a criminal offence to advocate republicanism in Britain since no prosecutions under the law had been brought since 1883.
In spite of this, it appears that the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides for the right to freedom of expression, has effectively legalised the quest for republicanism.
There is, therefore, no way that the UK government would seek to prosecute someone nowadays under the Victorian law.
It can only do so at the peril of putting the monarchy into the most severe jeopardy and disrepute.
Shamu should know better that the use of bad legislation to protect his boss will only make the President the subject of scorn and put his leadership into disrepute.
The minister’s threats can only confirm the truism that political strongmen are keen to hide their transgressions and failures behind draconian media laws designed to intimidate, silence and wear down critical journalists.
It is now the norm in this country that those who speak out against the State excesses or its policies are subject to arrests and tedious lawsuits.
And closing newspapers would be the ultimate act of demagoguery.
There have been vibes lately from Zanu PF information minders to prompt the Zimbabwe Media Commission (ZMC) into investigating and punishing media houses which do not toe the line.
These calls speak volumes of how these party operators perceive regulation.
They still miss the old Media and Information Commission which did not hesitate to launch attacks on the media.
The ZMC, it must be noted, is not a statutory instrument of repression.
It is a product of national progress wrought by the government of national unity to democratise the media. We should be consolidating this position and not marvelling at unjust 19th century laws.
“Every dictator is an enemy of freedom, an opponent of law.” —Demosthenes, Greek statesman, born 382 BC.