Freedom in the World
You are here
Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Zimbabwe received a downward trend arrow due to a significantly reduced political arena caused by governmental repression of political opponents and illegitimate presidential elections.
Zimbabwe in 2002 seethed with unrest as its increasingly autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, claimed victory in a deeply flawed 2002 presidential election that failed to meet minimum international standards for legitimacy, although a number of his fellow African leaders refused to condemn the elections. The election pitted him against Morgan Tsvangirai, a popular trade union leader who, along with several other opposition leaders, was arrested a second time for treason, in 2002. Their trial was postponed until 2003. The government proceeded with its policy of moving white farmers off their land. The country's economy worsened, both because of declining revenues from the agricultural sector and widespread unrest resulting from Mugabe's authoritarian rule. Aid agencies have warned that up to six million Zimbabweans face severe hunger because of drought and the negative effects of the land-reform policy. In 2002 Zimbabwean armed forces withdrew from the long-running conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (Kinshasa), which had provided commercial and economic benefits for many of Mugabe's elite.
Zimbabwe gained independence in 1980 after a violent guerrilla war against a white-minority regime that had declared unilateral independence from Britain in 1965 in what was then Southern Rhodesia. For a few years Zimbabwe was relatively stable, although from 1983 to 1987, the government suppressed resistance from the country's largest minority group, the Ndebele, to dominance by Mugabe's majority ethnic Shona group. Severe human rights abuses accompanied the struggle, which ended with an accord that brought Ndebele leaders into the government.
In recent years Mugabe has turned against student groups, labor unions, homosexuals, and white landowners. Zimbabwe is now facing its worst crisis since achieving independence in 1980. The grip of the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) on parliament has been weakened, but the party remains the predominant power through its control over the security forces and much of the economy. ZANU-PF has dominated Zimbabwe since independence, enacting numerous laws and constitutional amendments to strengthen its hold on power. Despite, or perhaps because of, this, opposition to Mugabe has mushroomed. The opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) has experienced rapid growth under Tsvangirai. Trade unions have been at the forefront of opposition to Mugabe. The small independent media sector and civic groups continue to struggle to promote transparency, but are subject to harassment and intimidation.
Over the past several years the government has taken numerous actions restricting civil liberties and political rights, including legislating severe curbs on press freedom. War veterans and government supporters continued to occupy and disrupt opposition strongholds and white-owned landholdings, with the overt or complicit backing of the government. The independence of the judiciary has come under attack with the pressured resignation and/or replacement of several senior judges. In addition, adverse judicial rulings have repeatedly been ignored by the government. Corruption has been rampant, and living standards have dropped precipitously. In 2002 the government reimposed price controls. Despite a previous price-control scheme, inflation raged at more than 100 percent in 2001. Official government figures predict that the economy will shrink in 2002 by 12 percent, given declines in revenues from agriculture, manufacturing, and tourism. Recent flooding and droughts in the region have also had an adverse impact on the economy, especially on the livelihoods of the rural population. Zimbabwe is currently in arrears to internal and external creditors, which has led to suspension of disbursements and credit lines. This situation has aggravated the foreign-exchange shortage within the country, making key imports such as fuel and electricity in short supply.
Zimbabweans are not yet able to change their government democratically. President Robert Mugabe and ZANU-PF enjoy wide incumbency advantages that reflect their ability and willingness to manipulate the political landscape as needed to ensure continued control. Since 1987, for example, there have been at least 15 amendments to the constitution by ZANU-PF, which have made the constitution less democratic and given the government, and particularly members of the executive, more power. These include the scrapping of the post of prime minister in favor of an executive president in 1987 and the abolition of the upper chamber of parliament, the senate.
The 2000 parliamentary elections, in which 57 members of the opposition MDC were elected out of a total of 150 seats, were deemed by observers to be fundamentally flawed prior to balloting. MDC candidates and supporters faced violence and intimidation, and a constitutional provision empowering President Mugabe and allied traditional leaders to appoint one-fifth of parliament's members helped to ensure ZANU-PF's continued majority in parliament. Voter registration and identification procedures and tabulation of results were judged by independent observers in some constituencies to have been highly irregular. The heavily state-controlled or state-influenced media offered limited coverage of opposition viewpoints, and ZANU-PF used state resources heavily in its campaigning.
Mugabe issued a pardon for thousands of people, most from ZANU-PF, for crimes committed during the election campaign, including individuals guilty of assault, arson, kidnapping, torture, and attempted murder. According to the Zimbabwe Human Rights Forum, more than 18,000 people had their rights violated, and more than 90 percent of the alleged perpetrators were ZANU-PF supporters or government officials.
The 2002 presidential elections proved highly controversial with additional restraints being imposed, such as legislation limiting election observers. Although some African nations backed Mugabe's victory, the poll was condemned as fraudulent by many other countries and international observer missions. The International Crisis Group, for example, concluded that "the strategic use of state-sponsored violence and extralegal electoral tinkering authorized by President Mugabe effectively thwarted the will of the people."
Freedom of the press has been severely restricted. There are no privately owned radio or television stations in Zimbabwe and just one daily newspaper, which the government routinely condemns. According to the BBC, the state-controlled radio, television, and newspapers are all seen as mouthpieces of the government and cover opposition activities only in a negative light.
The Parliamentary Privileges and Immunities Act has been used to force journalists to reveal their sources regarding reports on corruption before the courts and parliament. The 2002 Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) gives the information minister sweeping powers to decide who can work as a journalist in Zimbabwe and created a governmental commission that hands out "licenses" allowing journalists to work in the country. The law bans foreigners from working as journalists if based in Zimbabwe. It also makes it illegal to publish inaccurate information, whether or not a journalist knew the information was false. By the end of 2002, the act had been used to arrest at least a dozen journalists.
Following a recent court challenge to the law by the Independent Journalists Association of Zimbabwe, the Zimbabwean government announced its intention to amend the AIPPA. The proposed amendments cover clarifications of vague terms such as "abuse of journalistic privilege," writing "falsehoods," the powers of the Media Commission set up under the act, and registration of media houses. A new section on "abuse of freedom of expression" has been introduced. Under this section, journalists would no longer be punished for "writing and publishing falsehoods," but only for "intentionally or recklessly falsifying information and for maliciously or fraudulently fabricating information."
Security laws have been widely condemned by human rights and pro-democracy activists as an effort by Mugabe to crush dissent and curb constitutional rights of free expression. Security forces, particularly the Central Intelligence Organization, often ignore basic rights regarding detention, search, and seizure. Judicial rulings have at times been ignored by the government. In addition, the right of free assembly has been circumscribed in recent legislation. President Mugabe has also, on several occasions, invoked the Presidential Powers Act, which enables him to bypass normal governmental review and oversight procedures.
Legislation passed by parliament in the pre-2002 election period includes the Public Order and Security Act, which forbids criticism of the president, limits public assembly, and allows police to impose arbitrary curfews. Several opposition activists have been arrested for alleged subversion under the act since the election. This act provides for jail terms and fines for anyone who "undermines the authority of the president" or "engenders hostility" towards him. Intelligence agencies are included among law enforcement agencies empowered to disperse "illegal" assemblies or arrest participants. Other legislation has disenfranchised thousands of citizens living outside of the country.
Although under increasing pressure by the Mugabe regime, at times the judiciary continues to act independently. A former High Court justice known for his judicial activism, in particular ordering the release of individuals arbitrarily held, was arrested on allegations that he had violated the Prevention of Corruption Act. According to the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, his record of judicial independence may have been the reason for his arrest and detention.
In 2001 the government forced the resignation and/or replaced five Supreme or High Court judges, including Chief Justice Anthony Gubbay. In the past the courts had repeatedly struck down or disputed government actions, most notably regarding illegal occupation of farms. In early December 2002, however, the reconstituted Supreme Court ruled that the government's land-reform program was legal. Subsequent High Court rulings, however, have determined that many eviction orders were illegal. Some farmers who had been evicted from their properties were granted a temporary reprieve allowing them to return to their properties until the Administrative Court confirmed the confiscation of their farms. In August a judge ruled that the state cannot seize farms that are mortgaged to banks without first informing the financial institutions. The government, however, has refused to enforce court orders that they evict those who had illegally occupied white-owned farms.
According to the BBC, just a few hundred white farmers now remain on their land, out of some 4,000 two years ago. Much of the land has gone to ZANU-PF officials, who often have no farming background, instead of landless black Zimbabweans who were supposed to benefit. Up to two million farm workers and their dependants may also have been displaced by the agrarian reforms.
Donors say that the drastic fall in agricultural production is one of the reasons for Zimbabwe's current food crisis. Six million people--up to half of the population--face starvation this year, aid agencies have warned. Concern about the land reform program was one of the reasons why the IMF suspended financial support for Zimbabwe. The World Food Program has been forced to suspend its operations in some areas, as ZANU-PF youths allegedly denied international emergency food aid to people identified as opposition supporters.
There is an active, although small, nongovernmental organization (NGO) sector. Several groups, including the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Organization (Zimrights), and the Legal Relief Fund, focus on human rights. The Zimbabwean government plans to impose stringent new controls on charities distributing relief to victims of the current crisis and on the independently owned news media. President Robert Mugabe accused organizations such as the Commission for Justice and Peace of fomenting opposition to his rule and said they would be "dealt with politically."
In 2002, an unprecedented investigation of rights abuses in Zimbabwe by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights reported serious and credible allegations of human rights abuses and, in some cases, evidence of those violations. Amnesty International "strongly condemned a renewed wave of violence and intimidation" in the run-up to September 2002 local council elections.
Prison conditions are harsh. Amnesty International has reported, for example, that prisoners on death row sleep shackled and naked. The report argued that the dreadful conditions and psychological torment endured by death row inmates violates the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.
Women enjoy extensive legal protections, but de facto societal discrimination persists. Women have few legal rights outside formal marriage. The Supreme Court issued a ruling relegating African women to the status of "junior males" within the family, declaring that African women who marry under customary law must leave their original families behind and therefore cannot inherit their property. Married women still cannot hold property jointly with their husbands. Especially in rural areas, access to education and employment for women is difficult. Domestic violence against women is common; a 1997 survey by a women's organization found that more than 80 percent of women had been subjected to some form of physical abuse. Zimbabwe has signed international human rights treaties, such as the Women's Convention, but the government has made little effort to enforce, and continues to habitually violate, many human rights standards. Freedom of religion is generally respected, although there have been reports of tensions between mainline Christian churches and practitioners of traditional indigenous religions.