Govt tightens screws on COVID-19 information

GOVERNMENT has introduced stringent measures and penalties meant to curtail the flow of information during the 21-day national lockdown, with those accused of spreading falsehoods on coronavirus being liable to a 20-year jail term, a hefty fine or both.


The measures were gazetted on Friday under Statutory Instrument 83 of the 2020 Public Health, COVID-19 Prevention, Containment, Treatment and Lockdown Order.

“For the avoidance of doubt any person who publishes or communicates false news about any public officer involved with enforcing or implementing the national lockdown in his or her capacity as such, or about any private individual that has the effect of prejudicing the State’s enforcement of the national lockdown, shall be liable for prosecution under section 31 of the Criminal Law Code and liable to the penalty there provided, that is to say a fine up to or exceeding level 14 or imprisonment for a period not exceeding 20 years or both,” the Gazzete read.

But media rights activists yesterday warned that the measures were meant to silence other voices and entrench State propaganda as government moves to manage dissemination of information relating to the deadly virus. The country has to date recorded seven cases and one death, with government accused of understating the infection figures.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a complete lockdown that began last night, with a special taskforce led by Vice-President Constantino Chiwenga in charge of everything to do with management of the disease.

Government has also banned hoarding of medical supplies and food.

“No person shall, at his or her home or in any other premises or location, hoard medical supplies needed to combat COVID-19.

“No person shall, at his or her home or in any other premises or location, hoard food in excess of what is needed to be stored for himself or herself and his or her family during the period of the national lockdown.”

In the event of suspicion of hoarding an enforcement officer, armed with a warrant, would conduct a search and seizure at the premises.

Human rights activist Siphosami Malunga, who is also executive director of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa, said the penalties were grossly excessive and likely to stifle scrutiny, muzzle social media and shield accountability of public officials.

“The government must reconsider these provisions. A draconian enforcement of the lockdown will make an already potentially inflammatory situation where frustrated and hungry people are confined to their homes incendiary and explosive. There’s going to be no winners otherwise.

“The provision regarding “false reporting during national lockdown” is vague and violates constitutionally guaranteed rights to freedom of expression . . . The penalties are grossly excessive and the consequence is that it is likely to stifle scrutiny, muzzle social media and shield accountability of public officials.”

He said the order impinged on citizens’ constitutional rights.

“This provision is unconstitutional and violates the right to private property. It makes it illegal for people who have stocked up their own food before the coronavirus, totally unreasonable in a food insecure country. It opens the door for abuse by law enforcement to confiscate people’s food supplies. The penalty has a fine or one year imprisonment or both,” Malunga said

“This provision renders anyone who has food to last more than the 21 days lockdown in their house in violation of the law. It is completely ridiculous!”

Information deputy minister Energy Mutodi defended the tough measures.

“There is no human rights law that permits hoarding of food stuffs,” he said.

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