*This article was motivated by the call by Kubatana for Zimbabwean human rights activists to stand in solidarity with Munyaradzi Gwisai, and 5 of his colleagues who have been convicted for watching videos of the Egyptian Revolution in February 2011*
The decision passed against Zimbabwe International Socialist Organisation leader, and my former lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi Gwisai and five other activists to me only serves to show the ineffectiveness of the law as a tool for delivering real justice in today’s Zimbabwe. Comrade Gwisai, as he likes to be addressed stemming from his socialist background, was found guilty of “inciting public disorder”, after he, together with his counterparts organised a film screening and subsequent discussion on the Egyptian uprising in February last year.
The decision by the Court is not only perveted to the extent that it fails to defend the fundamental rights of freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom of expression but it also sets a terrible precedent that legitimises the systematic persecution through prosecution of ordinary Zimbabwean citizens for innocent acts such as discussing politics, current affairs and airing their grievances with the state of affairs in the country. The right to freedom of assembly is a crucial as it allows us as individuals or as groups to come together and collectively express, promote, pursue and defend our common interests.
Why am I so surprised when for years we have been moving towards this- a complete stifling of our voices. A systematic, determined strategy to scare us off from saying what we really think and pretending we are living in Disneypark. If Gwisai has been convicted just for watching the videos and discussing them, how much more so will it irk the government to know that I specifically went to Egypt during the Revolution to experience and understand how they did it so I could be better informed and also better inform my Zimbabwean colleagues about what it means to exercise our freedom of expression in a repressive environment.
Gwisai’s conviction is a travesty to justice and I am not afraid to say so. For the rest of Zimbabweans out there, do not be fooled to think there can ever be another way of exercising your freedom of expression which will not expose you to reprisals. There is nothing like ‘responsible exercise of freedom of expression.’ It is either we cower behind our curtains and pretend all is well out there or we continue to speak our mind boldly and probe and question what we do not like until something gives. That is how the Egyptians did it and that is how we can reassert our dignity.
It is a misconception to imagine that when the Egyptian Revolution began the people in Tahrir Square wanted to get rid of Mubarak. No, the majority of them did not even think that was possible. They understood the repressive nature of the police and they knew Mubarak had established a strong military system that would be difficult to overthrow. All they wanted was to reclaim their dignity. They needed him to make concessions to ensure that their socio-economic situation improved. They also needed to reassert their right to choose their own leaders, something that Mubarak’s presence at the helm of the Egyptian ‘throne’ was denying them. They needed to ease him out slowly but get guarantees that things would improve. So yes that is what they were asking for at the beginning.
But guess what, thinking that he had all the control and power in the world, Mubarak in his misguided arrogance refused to budge and refused to negotiate with the masses or to allow them the least sort of decency and dignity. So the people became angrier and angrier and angrier. And with the growth of their anger also came the rigidness of their own position and demands until their final and unmoving demand was for Mubarak to step down. Today we speak of him and not about him. That is the power of a people’s freedom of expression and that is why our own government in Zimbabwe is stifling us.
Only 5 months prior to the beginning of the Arab Spring, with the first of these protests in Tunisia, on 30 September 2010, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) had passed a Resolution on “The Rights of Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association.”This Resolution recognised the valuable contribution that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association have in building sustainable democracies. Most significantly, the Resolution introduced the mandate of a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of assembly and association with the responsibility to “study trends, developments and challenges in relation to the exercise of these rights, and to make recommendations on ways and means to ensure the promotion and protection of these rights.”This development was a milestone achievement in the history of the fight for freedom of assembly providing protestors with an invaluable tool to defend civic space and promote the respect of peaceful protests by state machinery.
And then came the Spring, a spring of expression, association and assembly. Thousands took to the streets in Tunis, Cairo, Tripoli, Benghazi, Damascus, Beirut, Lilongwe, Manzini, Dakar, Kinshasa and many other parts of the African continent and the world. One thing to be understood is that these people took to the streets not because it it was fashionable to do so but because they had similar concerns. The reasons for demonstrating included demands for political, social and economic reforms and in some cases the total dismantling of political regimes. The responses of the states were all the same- violent – with variations only in the degree of violence from one place to the other. The governments’ attitudes towards the demonstrations were that they were ‘disturbances to public order.’ The responses ranged from arrests, detention and harassment of perceived organisers of the protests to violent disruption of gatherings employing excessive force, including the use of teargas and live armour against the protestors. The pictures of Syrian armoured tanks being used to shoot at protestors, and the use of snipers to shoot into crowds of protestors in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and Yemen reflected the nature of the responses by governments’ in particular to protests.
Of course, these responses were unwise, if not completely foolish reflecting authorities’ aversion to the free exercise of the right to peaceful assembly. But squashing people’s voices does not make the problems go away. It only makes the masses more agitated and desperate to be heard. Why governments, including my own can not get this, and concede to demands by citizens to say their mind, I can never understand.
Yes we may be stifled today, but history has proved, human beings are like gas. The more you suppress it the higher the chances that when it finally pops open that window of escape, it will completely blow you away-like the Egyptians blew away Mubarak, the Tunisians-Ben Ali and the Libyans-Muammar Ghadaffi!