"Archaic laws must go" – Bornwell Chakaodza's last article

OPINION: One local daily newspaper reported this week that a Victoria Falls book merchant had been arrested for selling Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s recent book, At the Deep End.

While efforts by the same newspaper to obtain an explanation from the Matabeleland North provincial police authorities yielded nothing, it was reported that three days earlier, police had raided the book store and confiscated all the 10 copies of the book that were in stock, before demanding to see documentation showing how or where the books were acquired.

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Assuming all this is true, as we must in the absence of a plausible explanation from the police for this gratuitous assault on an individual’s rights, Zimbabweans are once again graphically reminded of the Communist-era flagrant disregard of the basic freedoms and liberties enshrined in our Constitution and the various international conventions that Zimbabwe is signatory to by State institutions, in this case, the police.

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There are fundamental questions that immediately arise from this incident: Was the action taken by police in arresting the owner of the book store indicative of an official view that by selling Tsvangirai’s book, launched publicly in Harare last year, the book merchant was effectively breaking the law. If so, what law? Was the book seller dealing in a “banned” publication, or it is that the subject matter of the book; the trials and tribulations of the Prime Minister in his fledgling political career, contravene the country’s censorship laws?

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What exactly is the real reason for the arrest of the book seller and the seizure of the Prime Minister’s book — the reading public and the multitudes of Zimbabweans entitled to enjoy their freedom of expression and access to information need to be told.

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If it is the government’s view that At the Deep End is subversive and not permissible reading under the country’s censorship laws, the public expects the relevant ministry to communicate this vital piece of information in a transparent manner. What is totally unacceptable is for a small clique of misguided spoilers, using their privileged positions under the cover of some State institution, going around arresting innocent people because they believe that is what is expected of them in order to further the political agenda of their masters.

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Many a time I have been assailed by the belief, rightly or wrongly, that many of the actions taken by securing agents, like those of ZANU-PF youths, war veterans and other extremist elements in our society, are purely products of overzealousness on the part of the perpetrators in the belief that by so doing, they further ingratiate themselves to those they believe would be impressed by such actions. Many a time, I have felt that even President Robert Mugabe himself, must wince in embarrassment to learn of some of the actions of his minions who believe the extent to which they persecute his arch rival in government, Morgan Tsvangirai and his followers, is a measure of their loyalty to him.

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The newspaper report referred to earlier in this article, suggested that the arrest of the Victoria Falls book seller over Tsvangirai’s book, could be a harbinger of things to come — and hinted that a full ban could be imposed on the publication. This, again, raises many vexing questions on the country’s censorship laws; where and when the Censorship Board meets, and the criteria it uses to arrive at some of its inexplicable decisions.

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According to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, censorship is the suppression of speech or other public communication, which may be considered objectionable, harmful, sensitive, or inconvenient to the general body of people as determined by a government, media outlet, or other controlling body.

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The rationale for censorship is different for various types of information censored:

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Moral censorship is the removal of materials that are considered obscene or morally questionable such as pornography, which may have the effect of corrupting the morals of society. For instance, child pornography is illegal in most jurisdictions because it can corrupt the youth and can result in unacceptable moral decadence and a breakdown in a society’s moral values. Censorship can also be used to restrict the dissemination of sensitive military intelligence to safeguard against espionage.

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Political censorship, often applied to a ridiculous extent in most post-independent African states, occurs when governments hold back information from their citizens. This is often done to exert control over the populace and prevent free expression that might be perceived fomenting rebellion.

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Strict censorship existed in the Easte-rn Bloc during the cold-war era. Throug-hout Eastern Europe at that time, the various ministries of culture held a tight rein on their writers and all cultural products were tailored to reflect the pro-paganda needs of the state. Party-appro-ved censors exercised strict control over newspapers and any other publications for general consumption. In the Stalinist period, even the weather forecasts were changed if they had the temerity to suggest that the sun might not shine on May Day. Under Nicolae Ceausescu in Roma-nia, weather reports were doctored so that the temperatures were not seen to rise above or fall below the levels, which dictated that work must stop.

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Independent journalism did not exist in the Soviet Union until Mikhail Gorbachev became its leader. All reporting was directed by the Communist Party or related organisations. Pravda, the predominant newspaper in the Soviet Union, had a virtual monopoly. Foreign newspapers were available only if they were published by Communist Parties sympathetic to the Soviet Union.

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Possession and use of copying machines was tightly controlled in order to hinder production and distribution of samizdat (illegal self-published books and magazines). Possession of even a single samizdat manuscript such as a book by Andrei Sinyavsky was a serious crime, which could involve a visit from the KGB. Another outlet for works which did not find favour with the authorities was publishing abroad. 

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The People’s Republic of China employs sophisticated censorship mechanisms, referred to as the Golden Shield Project, to monitor the internet. Popular search engines such as Baidu also remove politically sensitive search results. In Iraq during the Baathist era, Saddam Hussein had much the same techniques of press censorship as did Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu but with greater potential violence.

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It is common knowledge that ZANU-PF, dating back to the period of the liberation struggle, viewed virtually all of these regimes as ideological mentors from which it drew lessons on many aspects of governance and managing information. It would be naive in the extreme to assume that the lessons learnt and structures created within Zimba-bwe’s institutions when the Eastern Bloc countries enjoyed unfettered influence on the ZANU-PF government, are no longer active today.

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Indeed, the arrest of the Victoria Falls book seller is reminiscent of that terrible period in history when egregious governments fought tooth and nail for their own survival by manipulating the thinking of their citizens and mercilessly crushing dissent. Unless and until the authorities can show that At the Deep End is subversive literature that should be banned, the arrest of the merchant must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. This article was first published in the Financial Gazette on the 27 of January, 2012 and three days later Bornwell Chakaodza died of cancer.