Special Issue Brief: Zimbabwe elections a roller coaster ride between compromise and control
Reyhana Masters shares an in-depth look at the politically charged landscape and obstacles to free expression and access to information in the lead-up to Zimbabwe’s elections, featuring commentary by key stakeholders.
In a month dedicated to commemorating the struggle for independence, and the many lives lost in that struggle, Zimbabweans will head to the polls. During this pivotal time, the barriers to a healthy civic space in the country are being highlighted through political violence, exclusion, and the criminalisation of dissent, all aimed at silencing civil society and public discourse.
Elections are set for 23 August. Although there are 11 candidates on the presidential ballot this year and 38 different parties contesting council and parliamentary seats, in reality the face-off is between two main contenders: current President Emmerson Mnangagwa and the ruling party ZANU-PF, and Nelson Chamisa, who heads the Citizens Coalition for Change. The CCC, an offshoot of the splintered opposition Movement for Democratic Change, is currently considered the leading opposition party in Zimbabwe.
With courts across the country in overdrive hearing just under 100 election-related cases, inevitably the current and topical conversations have been focused on who will be on the ballot papers and who will be excluded. With cases being bounced around from nomination court and high court to the supreme court for appeal, it is akin to riding on a roller coaster.
In this second national vote since the unceremonious departure of former president Robert Mugabe, citizens are faced with a highly charged political landscape and a minefield of contradictions. People are looking for a respite from the cascading effects of hyperinflation, high levels of unemployment, rampant corruption and erratic service delivery. Instead, each day further complicates the already complex backdrop to these elections.
The contentious issues centre on access to the voters roll; the controversial delimitation report; cycles of political violence, which have intensified as polling day grows closer; “ judicial capture” (judicial persecution and the abuse of the legal system to close civic space and target human rights defenders and pro-democracy activists); the partisan nature of the security sector; as well as the introduction of numerous new pieces of legislation that legitimise the stranglehold on civic freedoms.
Impediments to inclusivity
A highly disturbing feature of this election is the decreased participation of women. After winning her legal bid to contest, Elisabeth Valerio — head of the newly formed United Zimbabwe Alliance — is the sole woman in this year’s presidential race. Despite a robust legal framework that places a strong emphasis on women’s rights and their inclusion in public office, only 11% (70/637) of women made it through the nomination court for the National Assembly — down from the 14.4% (237/1648) in 2018’s elections.
Tafadzwa Tseisi, a gender rights advocate who has been working with women in the political arena, attributes the lower levels of participation to:
- structural barriers within political parties
- online and offline violence
- patriarchal belief systems around women taking up leadership positions
- lack of capital for campaign financing
- cultural and religious beliefs around the education of women so they are less capacitated than their male counterparts
The prevalance of online and offline violence was flagged by African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Commissioner Janet Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie, the country rapporteur for Zimbabwe and special rapporteur on the rights of women in Africa, after reports she received about “women allegedly experiencing gender-based violence and discrimination due to their own affiliation or that of their relatives with opposition political parties.”
In her press statement, Commissioner Ramatoulie Sallah-Njie urged the government “to take decisive legal measures and collaborate with relevant stakeholders to address the long-standing historical discrimination that has hindered women’s political participation and create a safe and supportive electoral environment where women can actively engage without fear of digital or physical attacks in the lead-up to the 2023 election.”
Another limiting factor raised by candidates — and women in particular — were the hefty nomination fees instituted in August 2022 by the Zimbabwe Election Commission (ZEC), with the approval of the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs. Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi’s dismissive response to the numerous complaints was to describe candidates as “ lacking seriousness and unworthy of the positions they want to be elected for,” according to a report in All Africa.
Weaponisation of the law
The strategic use of the law to alternately facilitate processes favourable to the state and obstruct civic society’s work around transparency and accountability is a skill that has been mastered by ZANU-PF’s ruling administration over the years.
As Chris Maroleng, international CEO of Good Governance Africa, observes: “In Zimbabwe we’ve seen an erosion of the rule of law, and this has been replaced by rule by law. What is interesting is that ZANU-PF has effectively used legislative instruments to limit civil society operations and democratic space.”
A case in point is the passage of the the Criminal Law Codification And Reform Amendment Bill, which has been referred to as the “Patriot Bill” and the “Patriotic Bill” because of a clause that would criminalise activities perceived to be seen as: “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe”. The rather vague and broad language may lack clarity for interpretation in the courts, but it has the clear intent of deterring “opposition activists from urging or recommending sanctions . . . and if they are subjected to prolonged and difficult trials they will be distracted from their oppositional activities,” explains parliamentary watchdog, Veritas.
Commissioner Ourveena Geereesha Topsy-Sonoo, ACHPR Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, wrote to President Mnangagwa advising him against signing off on the bill, warning that it would have far-reaching consequences on freedom of expression and association.
It contradicts what human rights lawyer Chris Mhike points out is the mantra of the ‘Second Republic’ — as President Mnangagwa likes to call his administration — which promised “drastic governmental change… and that democracy would be strengthened so as to enhance the important principles of equity, freedom, provision of vital social goods and services, and good governance.”
Ironically the Data Protection Act, which amends the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and has been primarily used against journalists, so far, was used to prevent political parties, election watchdogs and other stakeholders from getting a digital copy of the voters’ roll. The country’s electoral management body refused on the grounds “that this would compromise the security of its database.”
Access to information and information integrity
Of the numerous shortcomings in terms of access to information, the most glaring is the lack of diversity in media coverage and the issue of bias, which Patience Zirima, director of Gender Media Connect, feels could be attributed to media ownership.
On 25 July 2023, CCC spokesperson Fadzayi Mahere issued a statement criticising the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) and other state media coverage of political parties, stating that they had “skewed news and current affairs” in favour of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s ZANU-PF party.
As Zirima explained to me: “there is very little distinction between coverage that is election related and the coverage that really covers ZANU-PF as the ruling party and the president as the incumbent, and a disproportionate advantage comes about as a result.”
To guard against unequal coverage by national television and radio stations operated and controlled by the ZBC, MISA Zimbabwe wrote to ZEC requesting a schedule for the ZBC. This was with the understanding that “it is essential to effectively monitor how public media discharges its duties and if this is in keeping with provisions of the Constitution. Section 61 (4) © of the Constitution states that all state-owned media of communication must afford fair opportunity for the presentation of divergent views and dissenting opinions.”
While they did not receive a direct response, the schedule was published in The Herald on 28 July, three days after the follow up letter.
Parties shortchange public
The most glaring information deficit in this election is from political parties who seemed to have sidestepped presenting what their policies will be if elected.
Douglas Mwonzora of the MDC launched his election manifesto at the party headquarters on 31 July, promising his party would bring “everlasting peace, tranquillity and tolerance.” He has since withdrawn from the elections.
Ruling party ZANU-PF said “it would not produce a flowery document as its manifesto … but is standing on the record of the Second Republic and will let its life-changing developmental projects delivered to the people in the past five years speak for themselves … “ While the current administration is adamant that the bulk of the promises made were fulfilled, an independent platform — ZimCitizens Watch — refutes this.
The CCC put out mixed signals, claiming that Chamisa launched the party’s manifesto on 16 July at a rally in Gweru, but subsequently going on to social media to say they would soon launch their blueprint.
Even Saviour Kasukuwere, a former minister under the Mugabe regime who may not even end up on the ballot as a presidential candidate, managed to virtually present his 84 page vision and agenda on 25 July.
Veteran journalist Owen Gagare points out that manifestos are the pledge to the citizenry by which parties are held to account. “In the absence of manifestos, the election ceases to be about ideas but about personalities. Beyond their personalities, political leaders and parties should let the electorate know how they intend to move the country forward; how they intend to deal with the plethora of problems the country is facing. Besides, the media and Zimbabweans at large need to hold political leaders to account. How do we make them accountable if we do not have anything to judge them by?”
Lack of accountability
While the grievances by CCC that they are participating in an election that puts them at a major disadvantage are valid, they too are shortchanging their constituents, demonstrating a lack of accountability on many levels.
Despite heavy criticism, the party continues to function without a constitution. Zirima noted that “the absence of a constitution makes it difficult for other party members and the public to challenge the selection and nomination process.”
With respect to candidate selection, the CCC adopted what it described as “ a citizens-centred selection process “ but then ignored the results, sidelining those who were chosen by constituents and imposing candidates selected by head of the party. The court case initially barring 12 CCC candidates from participating in the August ballot underscores the opaque and dictatorial processes within the party. The choice to present the candidates’ papers so close to the closing deadline of nomination court also raised doubts about the opposition’s credibility.
Safeguarding freedom of expression
MISA Director Dr. Tabani Moyo describes a cocktail of proactive and defensive mechanisms that MISA-Zimbabwe and MISA-Regional use to fight back against deliberate attempt to curtail freedom of expression, access to information and media freedom rights.
Soon after mobile phone subscribers received messages soliciting votes ahead of the 2023 elections, they wrote to the the Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe (POTRAZ) as the oversight body working on data protection issues to investigate the breach. The letter asked “how third parties accessed citizens’ personal data, including phone numbers, saying the messages were personalised and based on constituency segmentation as per the voters’ roll, and possibly in breach of the Act, which governs the use of personal biometric data.”
With the safety and security of journalists of paramount importance, MISA-Zimbabwe has also:
- Compiled a report on Zimbabwe’s media landscape prior to elections and legislation that regulates the media and its impact on journalists covering elections.
- Held nationwide police-media engagement meetings, spearheaded by MISA Zimbabwe, in partnership with the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe MAZ, and anchored on the Police Media Action Plan of December 2017.
- Held meetings with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on information, media and broadcasting services and the Ministry of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services on reforms to preclude a double accreditation process for journalists covering elections.
- Held a safety and security training workshop for young women journalists covering elections.
- Held separate multi-stakeholder meetings with critical political party heads, the Zimbabwe Media Commission and members of parliament to assess state of readiness for media to cover elections safely.
- Organised digital literacy campaigns raising awareness on disinformation, misinformation and the Cyber and Data Protection Act.
- Worked with Signs of Hope — an organisation working with people living with disabilities — to engage ZEC and ZBC in enforcing the 2018 court order that ordered the national broadcaster to provide information to people with disabilities.
Whatever the outcome of the elections, this cycle of advocacy — which has often yielded positive results — will need to be re-ignited with the newly elected members of parliament and newly appointed ministers.
July regional updates in brief
A rewarding month: Veteran Togolese journalist Ferdinand Ayité, director of online investigative publication L’Alternative, was honoured by the Committee to Protect Journalists with this year’s International Press Freedom Award. Dr. Tabani Moyo, regional director of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, and director of MISA-Zimbabwe was elected to serve as IFEX convenor for the next three-year term. Dr. Moyo was also selected to be part of an international committee of experts, established by Reporters Without Borders and partners, that will work on developing a charter aimed at regulating the use of AI in media. The committee is led by 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa and includes “distinguished members from 13 different countries, academic and professionals in the fields of journalism, AI and digital technologies.”
Nigeria: Priestba Nwokocha, the news director at the Rivers State Broadcasting Corporation (RSBC), in Port Hartcourt, was abducted by armed men while she was on her way home from work. The Nigeria Union of Journalists (NUJ), Rivers State Council, has called on security agencies to secure her release.
Burundi: Journalist Floriane Irangabiye, who has been in prison since 2022, was back in the spotlight as media advocacy organisations demanded she be given medical treatment as her health deteriorates. At the beginning of this year, Irangabiye was given a 10-year-sentence and fined 1,000,000 Burundian Francs (US$480) for what have been described as trumped-up charges.