AG criminalising national debate
By Conrad Nyamutata
HARARE – The appointment or re-appointment of service chiefs at the expiry of their terms has generated national debate.
The term of the police commissioner-general Augustine Chihuri expired last week, and that of Constatine Chiwenga due to run out soon.
The matter has naturally triggered debate because the two service chiefs have occupied their posts for extraordinarily long periods of time.
The pair has, with good cause, been seen as partisan.
In the middle of this national conversation, the AG, Johannes Tomana, issues a rather chilling warning:
“From now on, we are not going to be tolerating or condoning, as custodians of the enforcement arm of our laws, any form of lawlessness, especially lawlessness meant to weaken our constitutional pillars that include the Commissioner-General’s office.”
He added: “The same applies to all other constitutional offices through which the Presidency uses to deliver the Constitutional protection that citizens of this country are entitled to.
“I am inviting the media to pay special attention to the laws around contempt of court and laws around obstruction of justice because this country, especially now, will rely on true and substantive administration of justice by our judiciary.”
The intervention of the AG was welcome in so far as he sought to explain concepts of appointments and re-appointments.
With the advent of the GPA and existence of the current constitution, constitutionalism in Zimbabwe has become murky.
The nation needs to know whether GPA and the constitution are not being invoked or interpreted expediently to suit certain political interests on certain issues.
It will need constitutional experts to explain these issues.
The AG should be part of this national debate rather than its impediment.
What the AG should not do is issue threats to either politicians or the media.
What his threats amount to is criminalising national debate. It is meant to silence a society on a matter that directly affects it.
Why should a nation be stopped from debating about its social and political institutions and those who head them?
How does a national conversation become unlawful, unless discussants directly call for illegal action or activity?
Thus far, none has called for unlawful action; all that the people concerned have done is raise concerns about prolonging the tenures of persons whose performances have been, to say the least, questionable.
As I said, the AG’s decree constitutes criminalisation of legitimate debate.
Whether one side of the argument is valid or not is not exactly the matter here.
What should concern us is the attempt to thwart deliberation on critical societal issues by threatening to use, if not abuse, the law.
The reason behind this debate about the police commissioner general in particular, is exactly what the AG demonstrates here: invoking or threatening to invoke the law only when something seems adversarial to one particular party.
Public discourse on critical social issues is the hallmark of all great democracies.
Most Zimbabweans aspire we become one, hence the current attempts at democratic reform. The starting point is creating the conversational space to discuss social matters.
German philosopher Jurgen Habermas introduced the concept of the “public sphere.” The principles of the public sphere — which we should embrace — involve open discussion of all issues of general concern to ascertain general interests and the public good.
The public sphere — that zone between civil society and the state — presupposes freedoms of speech and assembly, a free press, and the right to freely participate in political debate.
The law should not be used to narrow this sphere and hamper debate in the media or among politicians, no matter how those in charge of the law might disagree with any shade of opinion.
The AG enjoins the media to recognise laws around contempt of court and obstruction of justice.
I failed to make any connection between the current debate over the appointments or reappointments of service chiefs and office of president to any breach of these laws.
Contempt of what court, and obstruction of what justice?
If anything, it is Tomana who is holding the public in contempt by trying to block dialogic justice; hampering society — with its different political opinions — from engaging in legitimate debate on what is ultimately good for it.
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