Leaning on Miriam-Webster’s definition of patriot as “one who loves and supports his or her country,” I would pridefully consider myself a patriot and insist that anyone who claimed that his/her love of and for Saint Lucia is stronger than mine, is either stark raving mad or a liar. Now, in an era where truth and lies have traded meanings in our consciousness; when freedom of speech is taken to mean freedom to willfully spread false rumours; and when hearsay evidence is admissible in a court of law, my self-bestowed patriot status is being laid waste by the winds of uncertainty.
In many respects, patriotism is in the eye of the beholder. The leaders and supporters of coups against governments they consider “corrupt”, often clothe themselves in flags of patriotism as do those who believe elections are stolen and seek to impede the peaceful transfer of power to a succeeding government.
Notions of patriotism entered new, and for some, dangerous territory when on 14th July 2023, the Parliament of Zimbabwe passed “The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Act 2023.” Commonly called “the Patriot Act.” It’s just 5 pages long, but it has proven to be far more controversial than its 96-page parent-law which was passed in 2004 and amended in 2007.
In summary, the new law makes it a crime to willfully injure “the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe.” The term “national interest” is not defined in the law, but our friends Miriam-Webster define it as “…the interest of an independent nation—separate from the interests of subordinate areas or groups and also of other nations or supranational groups.” That definition adds more fire to the patriotism debate, because when you think about it, often it is a minority of people who decide what is in the national interest. Often, many in the majority care more about themselves than about others.
The law makes it a crime for citizens and permanent residents of Zimbabwe to participate in a meeting in Zimbabwe or elsewhere; consider or plan for armed intervention in Zimbabwe by a foreign government; or to subvert or overthrow the Zimbabwean government. That crime carries a sentence of death or life imprisonment, where the said meeting considered or planned an armed intervention; and up to 20 years imprisonment, where the meeting considered subverting or overthrowing the government.
A citizen or permanent resident of Zimbabwe who actively participates in a meeting, in Zimbabwe or elsewhere, whether to consider or plan sanctions or a trade boycott against Zimbabwe can be deemed guilty of an offence and liable to a fine of up to US$12 000 or imprisonment for up to 10 years, or both. Additional penalties may include: (1) the termination of citizenship—unless the person is a citizen by birth or descent; (2) cancellation of the person’s permanent residence, if the person is not a citizen; (3) disqualification for between five and 15 years, from being registered as a voter or voting; and (4) prohibition from holding public office for between five and 15 years.
The law defines a “meeting” as any communication between two or more people, whether in person or virtually. A written communication would not count as a “meeting.” Further, a meeting may be initiated by the citizen or permanent resident or by a foreign agent. An important caveat noted by legal experts is that a person will not commit an offence by participating in a meeting: unless he or she knows or has reason to believe the purpose of the meeting is to plan armed intervention, subversion, sanctions and so on, or if he /she tries to discourage the armed intervention, subversion or sanctions that are being planned.
Criticism of the Law
Unsurprisingly, the law has attracted many critics who insist the Bill was introduced after an Al Jazeera investigation allegedly exposed the involvement of high-ranking officials from Zimbabwe in smuggling and money laundering, which helped the country to evade Western sanctions. Further, some critics like Veritas Zimbabwe, say the language of the law is difficult to understand, thus raising the likelihood that law enforcement authorities will interpret it too broadly and exercise too little or too much discretion. Also, Veritas believes that the crimes indicated in the law will stifle political debate and weaken the activism of civil society organisations.
Journalist, Hopewell Chin’owo who was jailed 3 times in 6-months-for reporting on what he considered to be matters of interest to ordinary Zimbabweans, worries that young journalists will be intimated by the prospect of being convicted under the law. He gave this hypothetical example of the dangers of the law.
“If I were on the streets of Zimbabwe and a foreign government responds by saying what is happening in Zimbabwe is unacceptable on the basis of what I have reported and decide to impose sanctions on an individual or a member of the ruling party, I become liable as someone who is deemed to have done something against the national interest.”
Chin’owo’s concerns are very real as the law says that even if sanctions and trade boycotts are directed at individuals or companies, they can be deemed to affect a substantial section of Zimbabwe’s people (read “national interest.”). Further, if it is proved that the actions of the accused person led to sanctions or a boycott, then that person may be liable to conviction. There’s more! If the accused person made or endorsed a false statement at the meeting, and even if the meeting did not bring about sanctions, but instead caused a foreign government to issue a non-binding advisory–which had the same effect as legal sanctions–the accused may also be liable.
Opposition parties too have good reason to be concerned. Zimbabwe’s Opposition Leader, Temba Mliswa argued in Parliament that the law is an assault on the democratic rights of citizens and journalists enshrined in the Constitution and that it will hinder their ability to debate and report factually on matters of national interest. The following hypothetical question from Veritas reinforces this concern.
“If …an opposition activist has a conversation on WhatsApp with a member of a foreign legislature and discusses the effect of sanctions on the Zimbabwe Government’s attitude towards opposition parties, does that activist commit an offence under the new section?”
Until that scenario is tested in the Courts, we will never know. But given the competitive and oftentimes vindictive nature of politics, it is unlikely a ruling party would treat the actions of the activist as anything but as a threat to the Government or ruling party (read “national interest.”)
Supporters of the law from within and outside the ruling ZANU-PF justify it by pointing to the fallout from the land reform policies introduced by the Mugabe government some 20 years ago. Then, the EU, US and the UK claimed the sanctions were in response to human rights violations, government policies and actions that impede democracy, the rule of law and respect for human and property rights. Some of the sanctions are still in effect. Government supporters argue that the sanctioning countries were aided and abetted by unpatriotic Zimbabweans.
Supporters of the Bill argue that its aim is to discourage disloyalty and promote patriotism among Zimbabweans. In an interview on Edusplorer, Richard Mahomva-director in the office of the Secretary for Administration at the revolutionary’s party headquarters-made no secret of his role in calling for the Bill’s passage. He noted that love/loyalty (patriotism?) is one of four obligations imposed on Zimbabweans by the Constitution. He used the term “de-campaigning” to describe those persons who: willfully spread falsehoods that are not substantiated; or accuse people of corruption when they have never been convicted in a court of law; or make unsubstantiated claims about the country (my emphasis).
As a victim of malicious rumour, I am sympathetic to this view. I have always been amazed at the creativity with which my people including politicians and political operatives fabricate rumour and the ease with which it is spread. Much more will be written about this in a subsequent commentary.
Whatever the motive, Zimbabwe’s so-called Patriot Act will sustain vigorous debate in the country, across the African continent and the world. It’s left to be seen how it will impact upcoming elections in the country and how the EU, UK, and the US will respond. Whatever the outcome, I will continue to perform my patriotic duties with undiminished fervour. My country will have my undying love and support and so too will the government of the day. But I will always reserve the right to offer constructive criticism when it becomes necessary.