he African Freedom of Expression Exchange (AFEX) joins journalists, bloggers, and activists in Zambia to call on the government to develop and adopt a transparent, inclusive and multi-stakeholder approach in enacting internet policies that will ensure that the people of Zambia have access to free and open Internet. This approach will ensure that citizens’ online rights are protected.
Authorities in Zambia are about to introduce before parliament, three bills that are meant to regulate the Internet and in particular social media. The proposed bills are; the Cyber Security and Cybercrime Bill, Data Protection Bill and Electronic Commerce and Transactions Bill. Sadly, the process of drafting these laws has been secretive and non-participatory, prompting fears that the laws will contain repressive elements that are likely to be used to stifle freedom of expression online.
Civil society organisations such as MISA Zambia, Bloggers of Zambia and the Zambia Centre for Social Development (ZCSD), through the #OpenSpaceZM campaign, have been urging to the government of Zambia to actively involve journalists, bloggers, civil society actors and citizens in the formulation and the drafting process of the proposed cyber laws in the country.
However, the government has not heeded to these calls to publicise the bills. The bills if passed in their current state would have serious repercussions for the enjoyment of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, media rights and access to information online.
Although the President Edgar Lungu’s government has assured the public that the objective of the bills is to protect citizens’ Internet rights and freedoms, recent actions by state officials do not engender and guarantee trust owing to the fact that a number of violations have been perpetrated against individuals with dissenting opinions. State actors continue to issue threats against social media users that government will introduce laws that will require administrators of WhatsApp groups to register their platforms.
In Zambia, the Internet is considered to be the only space available for citizens to enjoy their right to freedom of expression and assembly. This is because the government uses laws such as the Public Order Act and Penal Code to clamp down on critical media and to infringe on citizens’ rights. The country’s media regulator, Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) has also been responsible for the withdrawal of licence of private TV and radio stations that are critical of the government.
While AFEX acknowledges that online harassment and identity/data theft are legitimate threats that need to be controlled to guarantee citizens’ safety and security, we believe that this important exercise should not be left in the hands of the government alone, without the involvement of other key stakeholders.
AFEX is seriously concerned that the formulation and passage of these laws without due consultation with the general public will pose a grave threat to fundamental human rights including freedom of expression online in Zambia.
AFEX urges President Edgar Lungu to prioritise Internet rights and freedoms of citizens in accordance with national, regional and international frameworks. We call on him and the leadership of Parliament to make public the proposed bills for scrutiny and review by the general public to ensure that they promote democracy.