Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
Robert Mugabe and his Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) have dominated Zimbabwean politics since independence in 1980, in part by carrying out severe and often violent crackdowns against the political opposition, critical media, and other dissenters. However, in recent years the ZANU-PF has fragmented, as politicians maneuvered for position to succeed the aging Mugabe as president. In 2017, Mugabe was removed from power through a military intervention, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, the former vice president, was installed as president. He promised that elections would be held in 2018, as scheduled.
Zimbabwe’s status declined from Partly Free to Not Free and its political rights rating declined from 5 to 6 due to the process by which elected president Robert Mugabe was compelled to resign in November under pressure from the military.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In November, Mugabe was compelled to resign under pressure from the military, and Mnangagwa became president. Mnangagwa’s subsequently appointed several high-ranking military figures to his cabinet.
- Following the events in November, several high-profile figures aligned with Mugabe were arrested and detained, with military officials refusing to disclose the charges against them and in some cases, where they were being held.
- Earlier, in September, lawmakers approved and Mugabe signed into law a measure restoring the president’s discretionary power to appoint individuals to the three highest offices of the judiciary, reducing the transparency of the selection process and threatening judicial independence.
- In September, a reproductive health and rights advocacy group released an exposé about underage girls engaged in commercial sex work, prompting the Ministry of Public Service, Labour, and Social Welfare to place dozens of girls in statutory care.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 10 / 40 (–2)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 2 / 12 (–1)
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4 (–1)
The president is directly elected, and limited to two five-year terms under the 2013 constitution, which also devolved some previously presidential powers to the parliament and the provinces. Mugabe won the 2013 presidential election with 61 percent of the vote. The opposition, the Zimbabwe Electoral Coalition, and international observers reported widespread electoral violations, but monitors from the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) deemed the irregularities not severe enough to have affected the result.
In 2017, Mugabe was forced to resign after a military intervention. The crisis broke open in November, when Mugabe fired Mnangagwa as vice president, claiming that he was preparing to seize power. The event was widely viewed as a signal that the G40 grouping, a faction of the ZANU-PF associated with Mugabe’s wife, Grace Mugabe, would subsequently control the presidential succession process. A few days later, the military announced in a state broadcast that it had temporarily taken power in order to “[target] criminals around [Mugabe] who are committing crimes that are causing social and economic suffering in the country in order to bring them to justice.” The military quickly moved to legitimize their actions constitutionally, even as the SADC and AU condemned the intervention.
Mugabe resigned later in November, after the ZANU-PF dismissed him as the party’s president, and impeachment proceedings against him began in Parliament. The ruling party then selected Mnangagwa as Mugabe’s successor, and he was inaugurated as the new president of Zimbabwe. The High Court ruled that the military takeover was not a coup, as did the AU. President Mnangagwa announced that elections would be held in 2018 as planned, and would be “free and fair.”
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 due to the process by which elected president Robert Mugabe was compelled to resign in November under pressure from the military.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 1 / 4
Zimbabwe has a bicameral legislature. In the lower chamber, the 270-seat National Assembly, 210 members are elected through a first-past-the-post system with one member per constituency, and 60 female members are elected by proportional representation. The 80-seat Senate includes 6 members from each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces who are elected through proportional representation, and 20 appointed members, including 18 traditional leaders and 2 members representing people with disabilities. Members in both houses serve five-year terms.
Like the concurrent presidential election, the 2013 parliamentary elections were marred by serious irregularities, though monitors from the AU and SADC endorsed the results. The ZANU-PF captured 197 of the 270 National Assembly seats, followed by 70 for Morgan Tsvangirai’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T).
Several by-elections were held in 2017, including in Bikita West and Chiwundura constituencies, where ZANU-PF candidates won by substantial margins. The opposition alleged electoral irregularities as well as that the ZANU-PF engaged in serious voter intimidation, including assaults. Separately, following the ousting of Mugabe in November, the ZANU-PF–dominated parliament voted to expel several ZANU-PF legislators aligned with the G40 faction; they were also stripped of party membership.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4
The 2012 Electoral Amendment Act reconstituted the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) with new commissioners nominated by all political parties. However, its independence from ZANU-PF has been questioned. In 2017, opposition figures objected that its chairwoman, Rita Makarau, also served as secretary of the Judicial Service Commission, and that she was appointed in the absence of constitutionally required consultations with the parliamentary Committee on Standing Rules and Orders. However, she resigned as ZEC chairperson in December, without offering any explanation for the decision.
Makarau’s resignation contributed to uncertainty about the ZEC’s ability to manage ongoing voter registration processes ahead of the planned 2018 elections. The polls are expected to feature the use of a biometric voter registration system, which is intended in large part to prevent the duplication of names and other inaccuracies on voter rolls—issues the opposition and election observers have identified as a serious problem in past elections.
Additionally, the ZEC was criticized in 2017 for providing fewer voter registration centers in urban areas, which are perceived strongholds of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 6 / 12
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 2 / 4
Political parties may generally form without interference, and there were some 75 registered political parties in Zimbabwe at the end of 2017, many of which had newly formed ahead of the 2018 general elections. However, new and opposition parties face obstacles in their operations. State newspapers and broadcasting institutions tend not to cover opposition candidates. Opposition gatherings often draw a heavy police presence compared to the ruling party’s rallies, and police often impose restrictions on opposition activities. In March 2017, the police banned the opposition from marching through Harare’s business district. However, ZANU-PF supporters were able to march through the city center with minimal police presence in August, in support of Grace Mugabe. ZANU-PF supporters have reportedly attacked opposition supporters, premises and homes.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 2 / 4
Opposition parties face obstruction of their activities, curtailing their ability to challenge the ZANU-PF in elections. The main opposition party, the MDC, has split into multiple factions. The MDC-T remains the largest opposition grouping. In August 2017, several opposition parties including MDC splinter groups formed a coalition ahead of the 2018 elections. However, the coalition is viewed as weak due to the appearance of divisions between the parties.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 1 / 4
In November 2017, the military forced Mugabe’s resignation and Mnangagwa, their favored candidate, became president. Mnangagwa’s subsequently appointed several high-ranking military figures to his cabinet, raising fears of deepened military involvement in civilian affairs.
Militia groups linked to the ZANU-PF have intimidated the party’s political opponents, opposition supporters, and critical activists.
The constitution states that institutions such as the country’s traditional leaders (as well as the military) shall remain nonpartisan. However, in October 2017, the Chief’s Council president publicly called on all chiefs to support the ruling party.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 1 / 4
Zimbabwe’s ethnic Shona majority dominates ZANU-PF and the MDC-T, and in the past, members of the Ndebele minority have complained of political marginalization by both parties. The Constitution guarantees 60 reserved seats for women in the National Assembly, boosting women’s representation in parliament after the 2013 elections to around 35 percent. The provision expires in 2023, raising concerns about whether progress in women’s representation will be sustained.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 2 / 12 (–1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 1 (–1)
Zimbabwe lacked a freely elected head of government at the end of 2017. After Mugabe was removed from power by the military in November, President Mnangagwa was installed by the ruling party in the absence of elections.
In the past, the commanders of the highly partisan military, police, and intelligence agencies played a central role in government decision making. The military takeover in November and the subsequent appointment of several military members into cabinet has made the military’s role in government more evident.
In recent years, much everyday government activity has come to a standstill due to the succession crisis that has been ongoing in the ruling ZANU-PF.
Score Change: The score declined from 1 to 0 because President Mugabe was removed from power by the military, and Emmerson Mnangagwa was then installed as president by the ruling party in the absence of an election.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4
Corruption is endemic, and the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission (ZACC) has little independent investigative or enforcement capacity. Annual reports by the country’s auditor general revealing large-scale corruption in government have not been acted upon.
During Mugabe’s rule, the ZACC had reportedly fallen prey to ZANU-PF factionalism, with different groups attempting to persuade it to prosecute members of rival factions. Following Mugabe’s ouster, many of ZACC’s investigations appeared to selectively target perceived allies of the G40 faction associated with Grace Mugabe.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Government processes are generally opaque. While the constitution protects the right to access information, a number of restrictive laws make it very difficult for the media and public to access information from the government.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 20 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 8 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 1 / 4
The constitution protects freedoms of the media and expression. However, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act (CLCRA) severely limit what journalists may publish and mandate harsh penalties—including long prison sentences—for violators. Journalists risk arrest and assault in connection with their work. In July 2017, three journalists and a photographer were attacked by police and arrested as they covered police attacks on protesters in the capital.
The state-controlled Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation (ZBC) dominates broadcast media, and in a country where many people reply on the radio for information, media diversity is limited by authorities’ sustained refusal to grant licenses to community radio stations. Commercial radio licenses have generally gone to state-controlled companies or individuals with close links to ZANU-PF. The government also controls the two main daily newspapers, though there are several independent print outlets.
In September 2017, the High Court ruled that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe (BAZ) must grant a license to Kwese TV, a private television channel the BAZ had previously declared illegal.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Freedom of religion is generally respected in Zimbabwe. However, congregations perceived to be critical of the government have faced harassment. Separately, in January 2017, a pastor was arrested for prophesying Mugabe’s death, on the grounds that predicting someone’s death was an insult against practicers of Christianity and African tradition. The Constitutional Court in October dismissed the pastor’s challenge that his fundamental rights, including the freedom of expression, had been violated.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 2 / 4
The Ministry of Higher Education supervises education policy at universities, and Mugabe, as president, served as the chancellor of all eight state-run universities. In December, Mnangagwa was installed as the new chancellor of Midlands State University.
There has been widespread criticism of the University of Zimbabwe’s 2014 move to award a doctorate to Grace Mugabe two months after she enrolled there. Students who heckled her at a 2016 graduation ceremony were detained by authorities. Nevertheless, political pressure on teachers and academics has eased in recent years.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 2 / 4
Zimbabweans enjoy some freedom and openness in private discussion, but official monitoring of public gatherings, prosecution of offenses like insulting or undermining the president, and the threat of political violence serve as deterrents to unfettered speech. In October 2017, the ministry for Cyber Security, Threat Detection, and Mitigation was established, with the government saying it was needed to respond to threats against the state posed by the purported abuse of social media. Soon after, police arrested Martha O’Donovan, a project manager for the online station Magamba TV and a U.S. citizen, for a tweet that allegedly insulted Mugabe. She was charged under the CLCRA with subversion and insulting the president, and was free on bail at year’s end.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 4 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4
Freedom of assembly and association are guaranteed in the constitution, but poorly upheld in practice. Repressive pieces of legislation such as the POSA—which requires police approval for demonstrations and proscribes civil and criminal penalties for violations—are used to restrict demonstrations.
Antigovernment demonstrations were not as widespread in 2017 as in 2016, when authorities had responded to a popular protest movement with massive crackdowns. Nevertheless, a number of demonstrations took place in 2017 and state security forces continued to employ excessive force to disperse protestors. Opposition and civil society activists were arrested and charged with crimes such as “subversion” and “insulting the office of the president.”
In November, after Mugabe was placed on house arrest by the military, thousands of people took to the street to demand his resignation without incident. But in December, several people in Matabeleland were assaulted and arrested by security forces for demonstrating against President Mnangagwa, raising concerns about continued repression following Mugabe’s fall from power.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are active, but remain subject to legal restrictions under the POSA, the CLCRA, and the Private Voluntary Organisations Act, despite the rights laid out in the constitution.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4
Due to unemployment and increasing informal employment accompanying Zimbabwe’s economic crisis, trade unions are grossly underfunded and many face dissolution. The Labour Act allows the government to veto collective bargaining agreements it deems harmful to the economy. Strikes are allowed except in “essential” industries. In response to a weeklong doctors’ strike in February 2017, the military deployed army medics to work at affected hospitals.
Authorities responded harshly to a 2016 general strike that shut down normal activity in large parts of the country, and was accompanied by antigovernment protests.
F. RULE OF LAW: 3 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
Over the years, pressure from the executive has substantially eroded the independence of the judiciary. While some judges and magistrates have ruled against the government, several controversial developments in 2017 pointed to the continued influence of the executive. In a November judgment widely viewed as unconstitutional, a High Court judge upheld the intervention by the military to oust Mugabe. Earlier, in September, lawmakers approved and Mugabe signed into law Constitution Amendment Bill No. 1, which restored the president’s discretionary power to appoint individuals to the three highest offices of the judiciary, reducing the transparency of the selection process and further threatening judicial independence. A constitutional challenge involving claims of irregularities in the parliamentary vote to approve the amendment was pending at year end. Corruption has also seriously undermined the functioning the judiciary.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4
Due process protections contained within the constitution are not enforced. Security forces frequently ignore basic rights regarding detention, searches, and seizures, and accused persons are often held and interrogated for hours without legal counsel and without being notified of the reason for their arrest. Following the events in November 2017, several high-profile figures aligned with Mugabe were arrested and detained, with military officials refusing to disclose the charges against them and in some cases, where they were being held.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4
Security forces backed by the ZANU-PF have long engaged in acts of violence, including against opposition supporters, for which they enjoy impunity. Police brutality is common.
Despite some improvements in recent years, prison conditions are harsh and sometimes life-threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, and food shortages have contributed to the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other illnesses among inmates.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
While discrimination on the basis of a broad range of characteristics is prohibited under the 2013 constitution, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is not expressly prohibited. Sex between men is a criminal offense and can be punished with a fine and up to a year in prison. The country’s land and indigenization policies have been criticized for discriminating against the white Zimbabwean minority.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 5 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 2 / 4
Police roadblocks within and between cities, at which police frequently stop motorists to demand bribes, have become a serious inconvenience. In December 2017, the government issued a directive to reduce police roadblocks and abolish spot fines.
Passport offices, which in the past were characterized by long queues and instances of bribery, have since become more efficient. However, in September 2017, the registrar’s office temporarily suspended applications for emergency passports, citing a backlog of over 2,000 applications.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4
Land rights in Zimbabwe are poorly protected. In rural areas, the nationalization of land left both commercial farmers and smallholders with limited right to their land. In a move meant to address the scarcity of formal titles to land, the Minister of Lands announced in October 2017 that resettled black farmers would be given 99-year leases and white farmers, 5-year leases. Separately, in March, over 100 families who had lived on a parcel of land for nearly two decades were forcibly evicted by riot police, reportedly because Grace Mugabe wanted to establish a wildlife preserve there. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission condemned the evictions as unconstitutional because they were not sanctioned by the courts, and alternative accommodation was not provided to those evicted.
The government has targeted the many vendors who have set up shop on the streets of Harare and elsewhere in the wake of the economic crisis. In October 2017, Mugabe ordered the removal of street vendors operating outside of designated selling points in Harare. Police seized goods, and reportedly attacked some vendors. The new government continued the campaign against vendors in cities around the country.
In response to the country’s severe foreign currency shortages, some banks have restricted the amount of cash that can be withdrawn per day, as well as that can be involved in some international transactions.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 1 / 4
Women enjoy extensive legal protections, but societal discrimination remains high and domestic abuse is a problem. Sexual abuse is widespread, especially against girls. Child marriages are illegal but factors such as poverty, religion and lack of strong enforcement mechanisms have prolonged the practice. The Termination of Pregnancy Act makes abortion illegal except in very limited circumstances.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
Due to the prevailing economic crisis, many workers are not adequately compensated, and some have gone for months without pay. A 2017 assessment by the International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index found that Zimbabwe was among the worst countries in the world to work in.
The Zimbabwean government has made significant progress in its efforts to combat human trafficking, which women and girls are particularly vulnerable to. In September 2017, Katswe Sisterhood, a reproductive health and rights advocacy group, released an exposé about underage girls engaged in commercial sex work, which prompted the Ministry of Public Service, Labour, and Social Welfare to place 54 girls in statutory care.