Zimbabwe’s ruling party since the 1980s, The Zimbabwe African National Union — Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF)’s, appeals to democracy and national interest in regard to their proposed Patriotic Bill should be viewed as a smokescreen to conceal the legislation’s true purpose: the silencing of antigovernment speech.
The proposed Patriotic Bill prohibits and criminalizes Zimbabweans’ communications with foreign governments or officials when that information may “harm the country’s positive image and/or … integrity or reputation.” The proponents of the bill reason that this legislation is grounded on promoting and protecting national interests by dealing with citizens who propagate negative information to foreign governments which undermine Zimbabwe’s direct foreign investment prospects and increase the risk of sanctions.
The Patriotic Bill has been circulating in Zimbabwe since ZANU-PF’s initial drafting in 2020. In March of 2021, ZANU-PF leader, Mpofu, moved a motion on this Act in Parliament to no avail. However, the party has returned to the legislation with MPs filing motions in April 2022, urging its enactment. The ZANU-PF National Assembly chief whip reported that the Bill would soon be brought before Parliament. The ruling party’s reintroduction of this legislation occurred a week after prominent Zimbabwean journalist, Hopewell Chin’ono (who the government has arrested on three occasions), delivered a speech at a human rights summit in Geneva, during which he highlighted the government’s human rights abuses, specifically its failure to invest in public health. Chin’ono’s speech is exactly the content that the ZANU-PF will legally criminalize with the passage of the Act. It is evident that despite any national security/interest rhetoric, the passage of the Patriotic Act will have drastic negative repercussions on the semblance of democratic norms existing in Zimbabwe.
Ozan Varol’s stealth authoritarianism framework can be applied to understand ZANU-PF’s support of the Patriotic Bill. Varol’s theory argues that in order to appear legitimate, regimes often conceal antidemocratic practices under the mask of legal mechanisms that exist in states with favorable democratic credentials. Varol identifies the use of libel suits to stifle free expression and the bolstering of domestic and global legitimacy through the frequent use of rhetoric invoking democracy as two key mechanisms of this approach, both of which align with ZANU-PF’s tactics. The Patriotic Bill is essentially a form of a libel law, as it punishes dissidents from “defaming” the government. ZANU-PF MPs have conflated critiques of their governance with the country itself. In terms of the second criteria, ZANU-PF MPs have consistently demonstrated an appeal to democracy, particularly in pointing to democratic countries that have implemented similar measures, to justify the Act. For instance, ZANU-PF members have argued that the legislation is modeled after the US’ Logan Act (1799) which outlawed unauthorized foreign diplomacy. Similarly, an MP stated that “…other jurisdictions… have enacted laws that bar their citizens from engaging in unpatriotic activities…” Clearly ZANU-PF is making a concerted effort to legitimize this law through far-reaching comparisons to other democratic nations.
The vague language of the Patriotic Bill creates rife opportunity for the ruling party to apply it as a means of stifling freedom of expression, which effectively would close down any remaining democratic “space” in Zimbabwe. The legislation criminalizes almost any speech that is critical of the government or that draws attention to the State’s dire issues. These limitations on free speech not only violate the freedoms guaranteed by Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution but also jeopardize prospects to strengthen democracy. You cannot have a government for the people by the people if those people are not able to criticize those in power. Freedom of expression is central to a liberal conceptualization of democracy. In fact, it is one of eight components of Robert Dahl’s “polyarchy” model. Freedom to express personal views without fear of retribution is also one of the Freedom House criteria to assess democracy. Unsurprisingly, Zimbabwe received a score of 1 (out of 4) in this category for 2021. Legislation like the Patriotic Bill could certainly lower this result.
The ability to hold governments accountable is one of the main reasons that free expression is central to democracy; the Patriotic Bill is a complete assault on accountability. Criminalizing rhetoric that harms Zimbabwe’s reputation shields the ruling party from criticism on the domestic and international level. This is especially consequential in Zimbabwe due to the regime’s rampant corrupt practices and frequent human rights abuses. According to Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan’s study, voters tend to dislike corruption, but they often lack the information they need to punish corrupt politicians. By criminalizing critiques of the regime, the Patriotic Bill curtails Zimbabweans’ ability to assess the regime’s activity. The foreign focus of this legislation is especially detrimental to human rights monitoring. The Patriotic Bill forbids Zimbabweans from reporting violations to any internationally operating actors which severely limits both domestic and international awareness of the regime’s continued abuses. This lack of awareness gives the government the ability to act with impunity, significantly increasing their chances of re-election.
Contextualizing the Patriotic Bill within Zimbabwean politics sheds further light on ZANU-PF’s antidemocratic intentions and discredits their democratic rhetoric and desire for legitimacy by attempting to pass the Act through legal mechanisms. This Bill is one Act of a series of legislation striking at civil society that President Mnangagwa’s regime has proposed in the last three years. The Private Voluntary Organizations Amendment Bill (2021) which would enable the government to interfere with and restrict free association serves as a recent example. This suppression does not only happen through these legal channels; the regime has been known to engage in violent suppression tactics, frequently arbitrarily arresting and imprisoning journalists and opposition members. The Patriotic Bill is clearly targeted at these aforementioned groups — MPs even directly reference the opposition party’s “harmful” sanctions rhetoric as a reason for needing this legislation— as it is in ZANU-PF’s interest to silence these actors. The looming 2023 election definitely contributes to their sense of urgency in passing this bill. It is no coincidence that MPs reintroduced this legislation just weeks after the most popular opposition party’s — the Citizens’ Coalition for Change — successful showing in the by-election, winning 19 out of 28 parliamentary seats on the ballot.
Ultimately, this legislation poses a dire threat to freedom of expression and subsequent government accountability in Zimbabwe. The Patriotic Bill is an emblem of irony. ZANU-PF’s stated goal of increasing foreign support by stifling government critique could backfire; the international community will likely view this legislation as further evidence of entrenching autocracy and may therefore continue imposing sanctions. Many Zimbabweans are pushing back against the government’s definition of patriotism as solely promoting a “positive image” of the country. Citizens have taken to Twitter, creating the hashtag #StopThePatrioticBill to express their frustrations, arguing that is not unpatriotic to criticize a broken system. A Bulawayo Central legislator articulated it best: “… and to me the love for your country is to love the people and do what is best for them. Not being honest about what is the reality of their lives will be wrong and that will be terribly unpatriotic.” ZANU-PF’s endeavors to legitimize the legislation via democratic rhetoric is merely an attempt to conceal further autocratic consolidation.