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By Peta Thornycroft
Journalists in Zimbabwe, including foreign correspondents, face up to 20 years in prison if they fall foul of a new law due to be signed off by parliament in January.
The law, which also applies to members of the public, either inside or outside Zimbabwe, is the harshest since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 and during minority white rule of former Rhodesian prime minister Ian Smith.
Opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) legal secretary David Coltart said on Sunday: "The section relating to crimes against the state in this bill embodies the most fascist legislation this country has ever known, far worse than the most draconian laws passed by the Smith regime.
"The sentence of up to 20 years amounts to a death sentence in Zimbabwe's prisons."
Zimbabwe's Standard Newspaper on Sunday drew attention to the new law, which got lost in a swathe of new legislation being rammed through parliament in at least two all-night sittings before it is dissolved ahead of the March general election.
The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill went through its second reading in parliament last week despite an adverse report from the multiparty legal committee, which described chunks of it as "unconstitutional".
It is in addition to harsh security laws, and media legislation like the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, which was toughened up earlier this month to provide a jail sentence of up to two years for journalists found practising without accreditation.
The latest law, which comes among a rush of new bills ahead of elections, makes it an offence to publish or "communicate to any other person a statement which is wholly or materially false with the intention or realising that there is a real risk of inciting public disorder adversely affecting the economic interests of Zimbabwe, undermining the security forces".
"The question of what is a falsehood will depend on which judge hears the case," said human rights lawyer Beatrice Mtetwa on Sunday.
"If they can send Roy Bennett (MDC MP) to jail for a year for pushing someone over in parliament, then they can do anything."
Late last month Roy Bennett was sentenced to a year in prison with hard labour by a ruling Zanu PF-dominated committee after he shoved Justice Minister Patrick Chinamasa to the floor during a heated debate in parliament in May. Last week he was secretly moved from Harare Central Prison to one in northern Zimbabwe.
Coltart said the MDC had been deluged with a rush of new legislation, including one bill which will ban all non-governmental human rights and governance organisations.
He said one of the clauses in the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Bill, also makes it an offence for any citizen to make an "abusive, indecent or obscene statement" about President Robert Mugabe, "even if it is true".
One of the most outspoken critics of Zimbabwe's political and humanitarian crisis, Archbishop Pius Ncube, head of the Catholic Church in second city Bulawayo said: "The truth must be told about the evil things they do, we cannot be quiet."