By James Muonwa
CIVIL society organisations (CSOs) have written a letter to the National Assembly speaker, Jacob Mudenda, expressing concern over the Private Voluntary Organisations (PVO) Amendment Bill, which they say infringes on their work and autonomy.
Among other issues, the proposed law allegedly criminalises the work of CSOs in Zimbabwe by proposing harsh penalties, including jail time of up to one year.
In a letter to Mudenda seen by NewZimbabwe.com, the group wrote: “We, the undersigned civil society organisations who work to promote and defend freedom of expression and information, freedom of association and the right to privacy as fundamental rights worldwide, are writing to express our concern with Zimbabwe’s gazetted PVO Amendment Bill.
“We note that the government ostensibly proposed the amendment to comply with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations to align the country’s laws with Recommendation 8.
“While the task-force’s objective is to ensure that NGOs/PVOs are not misused by terrorist organisations – an analysis of the Bill shows that, rather than aligning with FATF recommendations, the government could be using this legislation as a pretext to clamp down on civil society in Zimbabwe and to infringe upon the rights to association, privacy and expression enshrined in the Constitution.”
The Bill also gives the government and the minister responsible for CSOs and Trusts excessive power, which will enable them to interfere with the operations of these bodies.
It further gives the responsible minister power to make an application to the High Court to appoint one or more persons of their choice as trustees to run the affairs of an organization for a period not exceeding 60 days – an excessive interference in the administration of PVOs.
If the Bill is passed in its current form, the CSOs warn, trusts and common law university associations will also be required to register under the PVO Act, which will mean designated organisations will become unlawful entities unless they register under the new law.
“As the registrar of PVOs will be reporting to the Office of the President, the threat of de-registration could affect the ability of CSOs to speak out freely.
Through this excessive involvement of the Executive, it is feared that NGO and CSO funds may be expropriated by the government under the guise of complying with provisions of the FATF recommendations. There is a real risk that the expropriation of the funds can be done without due process of the law and without compensation,” the body further stated.
The Bill further seeks to govern CSOs’ support for political parties, which flies in the face of the Constitutionally-protected right to freedom of association.
The Bill prohibits PVOs from “political involvement”, which the CSOs say is an overly broad and vague term that has the potential of being misused to target and persecute CSO leaders, pro-democracy activists, human rights defenders and NGOs that may be involved in promoting and protecting civil and political rights guaranteed under the country’s Constitution and major international instruments that Zimbabwe has signed and ratified.
“Honourable Speaker, while we accept that the right to freedom of expression is not absolute, the PVO Amendment Bill does not serve a legitimate purpose and neither is it necessary. On the contrary, we are gravely concerned about the Bill’s potential to unduly restrict freedom of expression and civic space.”
“Thus, we urge the Parliament of Zimbabwe to: Delay debate on the PVO Amendment Bill until it meets local, regional and international standards and best practices for the exercise of freedom of expression, free association and the right to privacy.”
The CSOs also called on Parliament to embark on a wide-ranging consultative process on the regulation of CSOs, Trusts and NGOs.