Broadcasting or publication of false or misleading information related to Zimbabwe’s Draft Constitution and the associated Referendum to be held 16 March can incur a steep penalty, according to Veritas’ Constitution Watch 13/2013:
Broadcasting or Publication of False or Misleading Information
If it comes to the attention of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) that any broadcaster (including the public broadcaster ZBC) or print publisher (newspaper or magazine) that any YES or NO campaigner is publishing information on the Referendum question (YES/NO to the draft constitution) that ZEC thinks is either:
- materially false or incorrect; or
- likely to prevent a substantial number of voters from making an informed choice in the Referendum
ZEC may by written notice order the broadcaster or published concerned to cease publishing the information or alter the information to make it accurate and fair, or to retract or correct the information in a way directed by ZEC in its notice. Failure to comply immediately is an offence attracting a fine of up to $300 or one year’s imprisonment. (New Referendums Regulations, SI 26/2013, section 12)
Given the power the media can play in influencing opinion and action, certainly legislation that penalises the publication of “Constitution Falsehoods” makes a lot of sense. However, in a context like Zimbabwe’s, the potential for this legislation to be misused, or applied selectively – and prejudicially – is high. With public meetings by the Media Centre, the NCA, and even the MDC to discuss the Constitution being banned by police, there is a risk that legislation like this will move broadcasters and publishers into the role of censors, deliberately withholding information which they fear might incur a penalty from ZEC.