It is becoming increasingly dangerous for individuals to criticise the government in Zambia, according, to a new report released by international advocacy group Frontline Defenders. The report, titled Creeping Towards Authoritarianism? paints a bleak picture of the shrinking space for civil society in the country.
“Human rights defenders (HRDs) in Zambia are facing arrests, violent threats, intimidation tactics, surveillance and smear campaigns as the government persecutes civil society and challenges the legitimacy of HRDs,” says the report.
It concludes: “As President [Edgar] Lungu takes steps to consolidate power and marginalise the political opposition, HRDs demanding accountability, transparency and fiscal justice are increasingly demonised for their legitimate human rights work.”
Among others, Frontline Defenders cite the cases of Linda Kasonde, the former president of the Law Association of Zambia, who faced threats and harassment by ruling party supporters every time her organisation put out a statement that challenges the government position on legal issues; Laura Miti, who was arrested and charged in connection with organising a protest against a suspiciously expensive contract to procure fire trucks; and Pilato, a rapper whose anti-government lyrics have attracted direct and persistent threats, forcing him to flee into exile in South Africa earlier this year (he has subsequently returned).
The Mail & Guardian spoke to other civil society figures in Zambia, who echoed the report’s conclusions. “The government is trying to systematically close down the civil society space,” said Arthur Muyunda, programmes manager at the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Restoration of Disputes.
In addition to the harassment of individual activists, Muyunda says that proposed new cybersecurity legislation will have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and expression in the country.
The draconian legislation gives the state unprecedented control over digital space, and includes a requirement that all WhatsApp groups must be registered with the government and their administrator identified.
“The future of civil society does not look bright in the face of government adversity,” said Gregory Chifire, executive director of the Southern Africa Network Against Corruption. “There is a targeted crackdown on civil society, the media and general dissent. Our government is averse to alternative views and criticism.”
Chifire said he has experienced this crackdown firsthand. After writing to the Supreme Court to ask it to review a controversial judgment, Chifire was charged with contempt of court on the basis of that letter, and newspaper articles in which he expressed concerns about potential corruption within the judiciary. “Exercising my free speech is not contempt,” said Chifire. The Supreme Court is due to rule on Chifire’s case on November 23.
Adam Shapiro, head of communication for Frontline Defenders, recommended that the international community and donors move to strengthen Zambian civil society before it is too late. He argues that civil society organisations in Zambia have been chronically underfunded as Zambia is perceived to be relatively stable and relatively free. “These are all warning signs, but there potentially is still scope for changing direction,” he said.
Zambian government spokesperson Amos Chanda acknowledged the M&G’s request for comment, but did not respond by publication deadline.