HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Robert Zakeyo never imagined that when he forwarded a video clip to a community WhatsApp group, it would result in a lengthy court battle.
In May 2020, Zakeyo posted a clip of Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa saying that the country’s currency was stronger than other currencies in the region.
The video was spliced with footage of the mother of the late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai dismissing the president’s claims in foul language.
The next morning, police showed up on Zakeyo’s doorstep and arrested him for undermining the president.
For close to two years, Zakeyo fought his case in court. He attended more than 25 court sessions. Each time, the court postponed his case to a later date. Zakeyo lost hope every time.
“I was deeply troubled and affected by what happened. I felt belittled because I just went around in circles without a trial or a sentence,” he says. “I thought it would never end.”
With Zimbabwe’s next elections set to take place in July or August, local human rights organizations say they are concerned about the state arresting people, like Zakeyo, accused of insulting the president. The government has been using the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act — commonly referred to as insult laws — to keep citizens and journalists from expressing opinions on political affairs both online and offline, advocates say. They worry that the use of insult laws will stifle political participation in the lead up to the elections.
Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Ziyambi Ziyambi and Permanent Secretary of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Virginia Mabiza did not respond to requests for comment.
The state withdrew the charges against Zakeyo in February, nearly three years after his arrest, but Zakeyo says he still feels the consequences.
Zakeyo, who owns a small grocery shop, says he lost customers after his arrest. His former customers now associate him with opposition political parties. They are no longer interested in buying from him for fear of facing the same predicament.
And to finance his numerous trips to the courts, he had to sell livestock, which left him further financially crippled.
“I had sleepless nights thinking of my fate and wondering what would happen on my next court appearance. My life was full of uncertainties and it was stressful,” he says.
Kumbirai Mafunda, a spokesperson for Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, says they have recorded several cases of individuals, including journalists, arrested on allegations of insulting Mnangagwa since he took office in 2017. But these types of arrests are not new, he says. They occurred while the previous president, Robert Mugabe, was in office as well.
Under the law, it’s a criminal offense to make a statement about or concerning the president, an acting president or the vice president with the knowledge that there is a risk or possibility that the statement is false.
The law criminalizes statements that may cause feelings of hostility toward the president or vice president, or may cause hatred or ridicule of the two.
If found guilty, a person can face fines not exceeding 300 United States dollars, imprisonment for up to a year, or both.
It’s up to the accused to exonerate themselves.
Gift Mtisi, Zakeyo’s lawyer, says the law is unconstitutional. An arbitrary power like this violates the freedoms people should enjoy, he says, and the law is aimed at suppressing freedom of speech, association and expression.
In addition to muzzling freedom of expression, the law is prone to abuse, he adds.
“It is being abused by people who want to settle scores with their opponents in the political realm.”
Like Zakeyo, Heather Mpambwa was arrested for violating the insult laws in August 2020, when she was a university student. Mpambwa sent critical texts to a local WhatsApp group in the town of Kariba after a presidential State of the Nation address.
“I was criticizing the address, saying that the president continues to talk about ending corruption and yet we are not seeing the results. We exchanged words with people on the group as we were having the argument and discussion,” she says.
The following day, police knocked on her office door and arrested her for insulting the president. She was detained and kept in a holding cell until she was released on bail.
“I was terrified,” she says.
Mpambwa had to report to court multiple times a month, sometimes weekly.
“It was frustrating,” she says. “I often wondered why this was happening to me and why wasn’t I free to air out my views?”
At one point, Mpambwa got a job far from Kariba. After a few months, she was fired. Her supervisor was not pleased with her frequent absences to go to court.
As with Zakeyo, the state took more than two years to withdraw the charges against Mpambwa. She faced charges until December 2022.
Journalists and media practitioners have also been affected. Mduduzi Mathuthu, editor of news website ZimLive, says he faced charges of undermining the president because of a tweet he sent in May 2022.
The police raided his home, he says, but fortunately he was not there. The police then issued a statement to the media inviting him for an interview.
“I went with my lawyer and had my fingerprints taken after being advised that I was facing a charge of undermining the authority of the president,” he says.
For reasons he does not know, the police released him and told him he would be required to go to court. As of publication, they haven’t called him to appear.
Mathuthu says insult laws have no place in a democracy, or in countries aspiring to democratize.
“Left in the hands of tyrannical regimes, such laws are used to target critics and intimidate even journalists, who must be extra careful not to offend the powers that be,” he adds.
A 2020 paper published in the African Human Rights Law Journal notes that arrests for insulting or undermining the president date back to the late Mugabe’s era. Mugabe ruled the country for close to four decades.
According to the paper, the former president had come under public scrutiny because he was elderly and looked frail. In response, the state made several arrests and prosecutions on the grounds of insulting the president. At least 80 cases were filed in the courts between 2013 and 2017.
Mathuthu says that despite the arrests, he is not deterred from exercising his right to free expression.
“I have, unfortunately, been at the receiving end of this regime for nearly 23 years now, and you begin to develop a thick skin. So I remain determined to carry on regardless, telling the Zimbabwean story without fear,” he says.
But Zakeyo will exercise his freedom with caution.
“After everything that I went through with the courts and accusations,” he says, “I will not participate in discussions relating to politics again.”
Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare, Zimbabwe.