People have been detained and tortured. In the country now, literally, no one’s safety and security is guaranteed if there is even the slightest doubt of support for President Mugabe.
—Adotei Akwei, Africa advocacy director of Amnesty International USA, The New York Times, September 16
In the rape camps of Zimbabwe, young girls are horrifically abused—often to punish Mugabe’s political opponents. . . . Mugabe has stationed two officers from his feared Central Intelligence Organisation in every village; merely talking to a murungu, or white man, can lead to interrogation or beatings.
—Christina Lamb, Sunday Telegraph, London, August 25
On September 12, Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe—once its liberator and now its brutal dictator—was welcomed to New York’s City Hall. Invited by voluble city council member Charles Barron of Brooklyn, Mugabe spoke to a dozen or so councilmembers, most of them members of the black and hispanic caucus.
The rest of that deliberative body stayed away, including council speaker Gifford Miller. Although saying he was ‘deeply troubled’ by reports of human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, Miller properly opened a conference room for what amounted to a tribute to Mugabe because, he said, it would have been “a terrible mistake” to deny him free speech.
Also obviously entitled to free speech and free association by the First Amendment were the councilmembers who could have come and countered Mugabe’s flow of self-justifications. Their questions and rebuttals would have educated the public and the media about a country on the brink of mass starvation, where Mugabe denies food to those who voted against him.
In Washington, on August 20, Andrew Natsios, the administrator for the United States Agency for International Development, said, “We now have confirmed reports in a number of areas in the most severely affected region of this country, which is the south, that food is being distributed to people who are members of Mugabe’s political party and not being distributed based on need.” (Emphasis added.)
Why were Gifford Miller and other members of the City Council, who are aware of Mugabe’s ruthless rule, not present to confront him? Surely, some wouldn’t have stayed away years ago if the head of South Africa’s apartheid government had come to City Hall.
Were they afraid of offending Charles Barron? In the September 16 New York Times, Joyce Purnick noted that few of Barron’s colleagues—”even those offended by the Mugabe visit—will criticize the councilman publicly, saying they fear he’ll find a way to register his displeasure.”
To be sure, the vivid Mr. Barron very vigorously and articulately exercises his First Amendment rights. But when I called him—never having spoken to him previously—before I could even say “Mugabe,” the cordial councilmember spoke enthusiastically of something I had written long ago about a jazz original, Pharoah Sanders. When we did get to the subject at hand, Barron called for “balance” in reporting on Zimbabwe.
“Everybody wants to talk about human rights,” he told me, “but what about the white farmers who so long have taken and held the land belonging to the people of Zimbabwe?”
Indeed, Mugabe makes much of how he is liberating these farms so that their rightful owners, the people, can take them back. Well, speaking of balance in reporting on Zimbabwe, there is this dispatch, distributed by AllAfrica Global Media (allafrica.com), which appeared in the September 20 Daily News of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare (formerly Salisbury). Some members of the press in that country, at considerable personal risk, keep speaking truth to power.
In his account, Pedzisai Ruhanya, the paper’s chief reporter, writes:
“Monica Chinamasa, the wife of the Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Patrick Chinamasa, has joined other VIPs in the scramble to take over prime farms under the pretext of resettling landless peasants. . . . She joins other high-ranking . . . officials, senior civil servants, business people, and top military officials who have acquired prime land under the government’s controversial fast-track land resettlement programme.”
Had Gifford Miller and other City Council members been present at the reception for Mugabe, they could have asked further about his views on equitable redistribution of the land. They might also have asked the maximum leader about Andrew Natsios’s claim—in speaking of parts of Zimbabwe being on the edge of a famine—that “the children of opposition party members have been driven away from school supplementary feeding programs in rural areas.”
Since Charles Barron is clearly very knowledgeable about the life force of jazz, I would think he might be interested in finding out about the life prospects of these children whose grave offense to the nation is that their parents voted the wrong way in the last election.
And the civil libertarians on our city council could have asked Mugabe about the following report from the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which has been an invaluable source of information on Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. The committee, referring to the Public Order and Security Act, passed by the Mugabe-controlled parliament in January of this year, notes:
“The Act makes it an offense to make a public statement with the intention to, or knowing there is a risk of, ‘undermining the authority of or insulting’ the President. This prohibition includes statements likely to engender ‘feelings of hostility towards’ the President, cause ‘hatred, contempt, or ridicule’ of the President, or any ‘abusive, indecent, obscene, or false statements about him personally, or his office. The use of the word ‘or’ here indicates that even true statements are considered criminal.”
Since Charles Barron is an irrepressibly free spirit, he is fortunate he is not a citizen of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, because at some point, his own zest for free speech would do him in.
Next week, a message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who persistently fought against apartheid and now has engaged Robert Mugabe.