Zimbabwe Curtails Travel Rights of Critics

Members of Zimbabwe's National Constitutional Assembly led a march in Harare last month to protest recent amendments to the constitution. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

According to reports in Zimbabwean newspapers, President Robert G. Mugabe has placed between 15 and 64 human rights activists and critics on a list of people who are banned from traveling outside the country because they allegedly threaten the country’s national interests.

The ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs are deliberating draft regulations that will require Zimbabweans to obtain exit visas to travel outside the country.

Critics say the new passport laws are aimed at immobilizing human rights activists and opposition leaders in order to prevent them from highlighting the government’s repressiveness to the world. The laws have been described as a serious and unacceptable assault on people’s freedom of movement. (Dec. 6, 2005) says a memo has been sent to all exit points and border posts instructing immigration officials to seize the passports of people on the travel ban list.

According to the paper, immigration officials at some of the country’s border posts, including the Harare International Airport, confirmed the names of the people on the list. The sources also revealed that they are under orders to seize the passports of anyone on the list “with immediate effect” if they try to either leave or enter the country.

Paul Themba Nyathi, national spokesman for the Movement for Democratic Change (M.D.C.), the main opposition party, and Grace Kwinjeh, M.D.C’s European Union representative, are on the list as are human rights lawyers, Beatrice Mtetwa and Gabriel Shumba. Shumba is currently living in exile in South Africa and is suing the government of Zimbabwe for torture before an African Human Rights tribunal in the Gambia.

Other people whose passports immigration officers have been instructed include poet, trade unionist and teacher, Raymond Majongwe; businessman, Strive Masiyiwa; chairman of the National Constitutional Assembly, Lovemore Madhuku; chairman of the Crisis Coalition, Brian Kagoro; Noble Sibanda, a relentless campaigner for asylum seekers in the United Kingdom.’s sources say the list is likely to expand and that those on the current list include journalists Geoff Nyarota, Nqobile Nyathi, Lloyd Mudiwa, Basildon Peta and Caroline Gombakomba.

At least 90 Zimbabwean journalists, including many of the nation’s most prominent reporters, now live in exile in South Africa, other African nations, the United Kingdom, and the United States, making them one of the largest groups of exiled journalists in the world. Some of these exiled journalists left as a direct result of political persecution, others because the government’s crackdown virtually erased opportunities in the independent press.

The Zimbabwean government has routinely detained and harassed journalists over the past five years to quash reporting on human rights, economic woes and political opposition to the regime. Repressive legislation such as the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (2002) has made it a crime to practice journalism without a government license.

The travel ban follows an amendment to the constitution, ratified in September, that allows the government to restrict the right to freedom of movement by denying a passport to anyone wishing to travel outside the country “where it is feared or believed or known that the Zimbabwean in question will, during his or her travel, harm the national interest or defense interest or economic interest of the State.”

Zimbabwe’s constitution has been amended 17 times in the past 25 years by the ruling Zanu-PF government, the most notable amendment being the abolition of the prime minister’s position, which led to the creation of an executive presidency in 1987.

Following the latest constitutional amendment, Minister of Justice Patrick Chinamasa told journalists:

“There are people who gallivant across the globe calling for sanctions against the country. Those are the ones we are targeting. I don’t want to mention names because they know themselves. If you are one of them, you are in for it.” (Dec. 3, 2005) says the list of people targeted for a travel ban has been around for a long time. It points to a booklet produced by Zanu-PF’s department of information and publicity before parliamentary elections earlier this year, titled “Traitors Do Much Damage to National Goals,” which lists perceived enemies of the state.

“The list comprises politicians, human rights activists, journalists and clergyman viewed as ’traitors,’ dating back to the first Chimurenga,” the paper says. [Chimurenga: liberation war.] (Dec. 6, 2005) says the requirement on Zimbabweans to obtain exit visas could result in opposition leaders and critics of the government being banned from leaving the country.

According to the paper’s sources, the ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs are deliberating the regulations before submitting them to Mugabe’s cabinet for approval and later to Parliament for enactment. It quotes a senior government official:

“If the plans go ahead, then the exit visas would come into effect at the beginning of next year. Officials from the ministries of Foreign Affairs and Justice are deliberating on the modalities which will be sent to the cabinet for approval.”

Minister of Justice Chinamasa would neither deny nor confirm whether the government was considering imposing exit visas when contacted by reporters for comments.

Chinamasa would only say:

“Are you afraid? Whether we introduce the visas you are talking about is not the issue. The issue is that we should not allow saboteurs to go round the world badmouthing the country.”

Newspaper publisher Trevor Ncube became the first high profile critic of the government affected by the amendment.

Ncube, who publishes South Africa’s Mail & Guardian, Zimbabwe’s Independent and the Zimbabwe Standard, told South Africa’s Business Day (Dec. 9, 2005) that his passport was taken soon after he landed at the Harare International Airport on a South African Airways flight on Thursday.

He said he was about to leave the airport after having his passport stamped when an official stopped him:

“I asked who he was and he told me he was from the president’s office. He showed me an (identity card) which said that he was from the Central Intelligence Organization.

“After that (we went) back to immigration where my passport was confiscated.”

The South African National Editors Forum criticized authorities for punishing Ncube for his involvement in newspaper publishing and expressed concern that the government was using the amendment “to suppress critical voices within and outside of Zimbabwe.”