Concern as government punishes free expression
On 19th March 2020, the Southern African Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) called on authorities to immediately reinstate John Sangwa, a prominent lawyer who was barred from appearing before any court of law. According to reports, Sangwa was barred from practising in Zambian courts by the acting chief registrar following a complaint of professional misconduct by the judiciary of Zambia to the law association.
In their statement responding to Sangwa’s disbarring, SAHRDN noted an escalating trend of judicial harassment, repression and attacks on human rights defenders ahead of the August 2021 general elections. Sangwa has publicly been a strong critic of attempts to amend the Constitution of Zambia in a way that entrenches strong presidency, undermines the separation of powers and judicial independence and has openly opposed efforts to have the current president run again in the upcoming elections.
Kaajal Ramjathan-Keogh, the Executive Director of the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC) and SAHRDN board member said:
“This kind of targeted victimisation and persecution of a frontline Human Rights Defender and a constitutional lawyer has no place in a democratic society, especially coming from the judiciary, an institution that has a constitutional duty to protect human rights and the rule of law…”
Another board member, Lepeli Moeketsi, added.
“The persecution of human rights defenders or people who constructively criticize the government seems to be becoming a norm rather than an exception in Zambia. Persecution of human rights defenders through arbitrary arrests, detentions and delegitimisation through trumped-up charges and character assassination needs to stop”.
On 9th April 2020, the Zambian broadcasting regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority cancelled Prime TV’s license in what they said was “in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order.” Police officers then went to the outlet’s office on the same day and ordered the staff to vacate the premises. The licence cancellation came after a month of tension with the government. Earlier on 13th March, Gerald Shawa, proprietor of Prime TV, told officials that private media outlets would not be able to air coronavirus campaigns for free because of pending unpaid advertisements by government. A few days later, on 17th March, Information and Broadcasting Services Minister Dora Siliya accused Prime TV of being “unpatriotic” and banned government officials from doing any business with the outlet, while also barring the network’s journalists from attending official events.
The cancellation of Prime TVs licence was not a first, as the broadcasting authority also suspended the outlet’s licence in March 2019 for alleged “unbalanced coverage, opinionated news, material likely to incite violence and use of derogatory language.”
Following the latest cancellation, Angela Quintal, CPJ’s Africa programme coordinator said:
“The Zambian public needs credible information about the COVID-19 pandemic and other events in the public interest. Now is not the time for Information Minister Dora Siliya to retaliate against a popular private outlet that does not toe the government line… The Independent Broadcasting Authority should immediately reinstate Prime TV’s broadcasting licence, and authorities should allow the broadcaster to reopen and resume covering the news.”
In separate developments, on 11th March 2020, it was reported that a 15 year-old boy from Kapiri Moshi town was arrested for defaming president Lungu on social media. According to the police, the boy, who faces a 5 year jail term, is alleged to have created a Facebook page which he used to defame the president. One of the posts read: "which other name can you name a dog apart from Edgar Lungu", while another said, "we are better off as a country without Edgar Lungu."