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Zimbabwen Ministers Face Jail Over Cabinet Leaks

Published on Saturday 7th August 2010

GOVERNMENT ministers who disclose information to the media on cabinet meetings and proceedings will be arrested together with offending journalists in a move calculated to stem "damaging leaks", the Zimbabwe Independent can reveal.

Media, Information and Publicity minister Webster Shamu yesterday said that even though leaking cabinet details was illegal, ministers were using information obtained from cabinet discussions to further their political agendas. He said some of his colleagues even distort or misinterpret cabinet information in a bid to promote their narrow party political interests.

Cabinet resolved last week to arrest ministers who leak classified information to journalists.

This came amid growing concern in cabinet about the persistent leakages of information to the press. The issue was discussed by ministers last week on Wednesday and a resolution was taken to unleash the police on those ministers who leak classified information to journalists. The journalists themselves are also under threat due to this decision.

Shamu said police would investigate and arrest any minister or journalist involved in the leakages.

"As cabinet ministers we take an oath of office and if information is divulged then you should be answerable," Shamu said. "If any information is divulged, the official will be investigated and appropriate action taken against both the official and journalist."

This was not the first time Shamu has issued such a warning. Last year he threatened that government would arrest ministers and journalists over cabinet leaks. The issue of leaks has been discussed on several occasions by cabinet.

However, sources said last week government took a firm decision to deal with the issue "once and for all". This left ministers and journalists worried about their contacts and communication.

The main law under which ministers and journalists involved in leaks could be dealt with is the Official Secrets Act, a relic of colonial rule. Sections of the Act prohibit communication of "information, code, password, model, article and documents" to the public by government officials.

Anyone found in breach of this law would be liable to a jail sentence of up to 20 years or level 14 fine, which is the highest possible fine, or both.

So far no journalist since Independence in 1980 has been arrested under the Official Secrets Act. Journalists have mainly been arrested under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act and the Public Order and Security Act. Another law which is often applied against journalists is the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act.

Ministers decided to take a firm stance on the leaking of cabinet files last week after agreeing that such disclosures were damaging to government.

The consensus to come down hard on the illegal passing on of information followed what Shamu said were press reports on how cabinet had agreed to stop radio jingles that Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai deemed offensive and a threat to the cohesion of the inclusive government. The reports mainly quoting MDC ministers indicated that cabinet had taken a decision to stop the jingles, although Zanu PF officials and the state-controlled media disputed this.

It is understood the issue last week exploded after Zanu PF ministers had accused Tsvangirai's team of leaking cabinet deliberations on the jingles to the press.

However, MDC-T ministers were said to have pointed out that state-controlled newspapers were always full of leaked cabinet stories, particularly those that appeared to advance Zanu PF's political agenda, while undermining Tsvangirai and his party.

During the heated debate on leakages, ministers from the three parties traded accusations and counter-accusations about who was leaking information to the media. In the end they however agreed that whoever was leaking it must stop and those who persist in leaking cabinet information must be arrested and prosecuted.

Following this development, the Independent this week heard that cabinet ministers, particularly those from the MDC factions, feared they could be targeted over the issue. "We know that Zanu PF, through its agencies, has been snooping on our telephone conversations in the hope of catching us in the act," said an MDC minister. "In effect, it is Zanu PF that controls the police and I don't see a situation where a Zanu PF cabinet minister will be arrested for leaking information. The police, as usual, will be ordered to go for us," he said.

The minister said the MDC agreed that leaks must stop, but there must not be selective snooping on ministers' communications and arrest of offenders. The minister said anyone who breached the law must be held to account regardless of his or her political affiliation.

Shamu said leaking of cabinet information was unlawful and damaging. "It is not good," said Shamu. "To leak information means you have a hidden agenda and in some cases we have noted that the leaked information is distorted."

The minister said his colleagues, like all other government officials, were aware of the law and should comply and avoid continued leaking of details of cabinet proceedings. Shamu said he would soon be meeting all media houses and editors to discuss the issue of reporting cabinet deliberations.

The minister said the Secretary to the President and Cabinet has a duty to communicate the Official Secrets Act to ministers when they assume office.

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