Artistic freedom in Zimbabwe: Joint stakeholder report submitted to the UN

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Zimbabwe should abolish its Censorship Act and any prior-censorship bodies or systems, according to a joint stakeholder submission to the UN’s Universal Periodic Review process (UPR) by Freemuse and Nhimbe – two civil society organisations defending artistic freedom in Zimbabwe and globally.

COPENHAGEN/BULAWAYO, 31 MARCH 2016 | Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution guarantees the right to freedom of artistic expression. However, several laws significantly limit artistic freedom, and practices of the police and government agencies create an environment of fear and self-censorship.

“Zimbabwe is failing to protect artistic freedom as guaranteed in the constitution and by its international human rights obligations,” said Freemuse Executive Director Ole Reitov. “Artists play a crucial role in expressing the joys and frustrations of any society. Zimbabwe must repeal laws that limit artistic expression and secure an environment free of fear and self-censorship.”

The new report was filed ahead of Zimbabwe’s second cycle Universal Periodic Review – the UN system’s official mechanism for reviewing all member states human rights records in cycles of four and a half years – that will take place on 2 November 2016 in Geneva.

Interviews and review of constitution
Freemuse’s and Nhimbe’s joint submission focuses on Zimbabwe’s compliance to its commitments under international human rights instruments relating to freedom of expression, creativity and the arts, as well as guarantees under its own constitution, and to recommendations accepted by Zimbabwe during the first cycle of the UPR in 2011.

The submission in based on interviews with local artists and a legal analysis facilitated by Nhimbe and qualified through a workshop held in Harare in October 2015 with local artists, journalists and human rights advocates.

2011 UPR recommendation
During its first UPR, Zimbabwe only expressed support for one recommendation on freedom of expression. Zimbabwe accepted Japan’s recommendation to “make improvements to ensure the freedom of expression, including for the mass media.”

“The Zimbabwean government must respect the constitutions and its commitment during the 2011 UPR process to ensure freedom of expression,” said Nhimbe Executive Director Josh Nyapimbi. “As an essential first step the government should replace the Censorship Board and other bodies censoring or regulating artistic expressions with a classification board mandated to issue age recommendations to protect children.”

Lack of transparency
A case illustrating the lack of transparency and arbitrariness of the Censorship Board decisions is the ban on the play ‘No Voice No Choice’. In 2012, the Censorship Board issued a notice that the play had been banned in Zimbabwe because it was “too direct” and “inciteful and against the spirit of national healing”. The director and producer Tafadzwa Muzondo, who describes the play as an informative play that tells stories promoting peace and healing, was not given the opportunity to appeal. He subsequently resorted to challenging the failure of the relevant ministry to convene the Appeal Board as a violation of his right to a fair hearing by taking the matter to the High Court. The High Court dismissed his claim.

In a recent development that underlines the worrying trend, the Censorship Board on 10 March 2016 banned the distribution of the award-winning documentary ‘Democrats’, a film chronicling the constitutional-making process in Zimbabwe, alleging it was not “suitable for public showing,” according to media reports.

Reform Criminal Law and POSA
The joint report also includes recommendations to reconstitute the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe and to repeal or significantly reform provisions in the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) that restrict freedoms of expression and assembly repeal as proposed by the United States, Australia, Canada, Austria and Mexico during Zimbabwe’s 2011 UPR.

Recommendations from the stakeholder submission:

• In accordance with international standards and respecting the 2013 constitution, Zimbabwe should abolish the Censorship Act and any prior-censorship bodies or systems where they exist and use subsequent imposition of restrictions only when permitted under Article 19 (3) and 20 of ICCPR. Such restrictions should be imposed exclusively by a court of law.

• Replace the Censorship Board and other bodies censoring or regulating artistic expressions with a classification board mandated to issue age recommendations to protect children.

• Repeal Section 31 (criminalises the publishing of or communicating false statements prejudicial to the state), Section 33 (criminalises insulting the office of the president) and Section 96 (criminal defamation) of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

• Reconstitute the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) with new appointees taking oath of office in line with public leadership and governance principles in Chapter 9 of the Constitution. The new BAZ board independence must be guaranteed and respected to eliminate, as far as possible, executive interference on political grounds.

• Improve efforts to issue licences to community radio stations as these small broadcasters have substantial influence on the exercise of freedom of artistic expression by granting local artists access to showcase talents. BAZ must decrease the fees for licenses to ease the financial burden for applicants for community broadcasting services. The exorbitant fees required are perceived as a deliberate move to prevent new entrants into the sector.

• Repeal or significantly reform the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) provisions that restrict freedoms of expression and assembly as proposed by the United States, Australia, Canada, Austria and Mexico during Zimbabwe’s 2011 UPR.

• Take measures, including training of national and local police, to ensure the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act and the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) are not abused by the police to limit artistic freedom of expression in violation of the 2013 constitution and Zimbabwe’s international obligations.


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» Read the full stakeholder submission here


Freemuse is an independent international membership organisation advocating and defending the right to artistic freedom worldwide. Freemuse has held Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) since 2012 and has previously submitted UPR stakeholder reports on artistic freedom in Belarus, Egypt, Iran, Lebanon, Turkey and the United States.  

Nhimbe is a non-profit arts advocacy organisation based in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe. Through legislative and grassroots action, Nhimbe advocates for national policies that recognise, enhance and foster the contribution the arts make to national development.


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