By David Pike
… restricting free flow of information primitive
At a time when the government of President Robert Mugabe is crafting a law to regulate the social media as well as suppress mass protests against his alleged misrule, a High Court judge says Zimbabwe is a democracy, and as such, citizens should be free to use the various social media platforms to mobilize each other to protest against decisions that they strongly disagree with.
Justice Nicholas Mathonsi who is based in the country’s second largest city of Bulawayo, made the remarks when he ordered the re-instatement of three Midlands State University (MSU) students who had been suspended for using the social media to mobilize others for a protest against the university’s unilateral decision to set up a satellite campus in another town far away from its main campus in Gweru.
“So what?” a bemused Justice Mathonsi asked about the university’s decision.
“The decision which was being resisted was not made by God, but by humans who had not consulted the affected individuals. Zimbabwe being a democratic country, it was therefore the democratic right of those affected to protest and demonstrate their revulsion at such a decision. How then could it be said that the mobilisation was “illegal”? Section 61 of the constitution guarantees freedom of expression, that is to say, that individuals have the freedom to seek, receive and communicate ideas and other information. Why then should a university be seen to be working to stifle student rights when it was established with progressive objectives…?” asked the no nonsense judge, who on September 29 will appear before a judiciary panel interviewing candidates for the country’s Supreme Court.
He pointed out that gone were the days when authorities would wantonly trample on citizens’ rights as administrative justice is now embedded in the new Constitution (Section 68 (1) of Zimbabwe.
“It occurs to me that there is a discernible readiness to unnecessarily pull the trigger and in the process play havoc to the constitutional rights of students. To begin with, the WhatsApp message complained of cannot possibly be said to be offensive at all even if it had been generated by the applicants, of which it was not. What the author was doing was to mobilize support among students to protest against what was considered as an unreasonable decision by the University authorities to shift students to Zvishavane a little town with inadequate infrastructure and the scarcity of accommodation.”
The three students, Fanele Maqele, Aldrin Nyabando and Tendai Warambwa had been suspended indefinitely pending disciplinary action for their “crime” of forwarding the message about the protest that never took place.
To drive home the importance of freedom of expression in a democracy, the highly respected Justice Mathonsi added: “The second respondent (the university) should not only be a doyen for intellectual interaction but also a wonderful laboratory for freedom of expression and free flow of information. Those values are suppressed if the authorities remain engrossed in a time capsule propagating archaic controls and methods of instruction where students are removed from campus for expressing their views. It is unthinkable that someone can still sleep soundly at night after excluding a student from school and sitting for an examination when that student has not been found guilty but is accused of sending a harmless WhatsApp message.”
The court’s seminal ruling comes at a time when the government of President Mugabe—miffed by the use of the latest media platforms by citizens to mobilize each other against his failing rule—is seized with crafting a cyber crime law that seeks to punish social media users who use the platforms for activities that the government claim are “harmful to national interests”.
Only last week, President Mugabe launched a vicious verbal attack on the judiciary after the courts ruled that it was illegal for the police to ban public protests in the capital Harare.