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A damning new report by Amnesty International released on Monday warned that years of “intensifying repression” have pushed Zambia to the brink of a human rights crisis ahead of August’s presidential elections.
Public meetings by political opposition and civil society are largely restricted on the grounds of public security or managing the spread of Covid-19 while two independent media outlets have been shut down by the government over the last five years.
The new report documents the deterioration of Zambia’s human rights record over the past five years since president Edgar Lungu came into power, and outlines how censorship, excessive use of force by the police, arbitrary arrests and detention have created a climate of fear and impunity.
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More broadly, the new report, “Ruling by fear and repression”, details how the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly have come under increasing attack particularly over the past five years, with opposition leaders and activists jailed, independent media outlets shut down, and at least five people killed by police since 2016.
Zambia’s ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party, led since 2016 by President Edgar Lungu, will seek re-election on August 12. The PF came to power in 2011, after Michael Sata’s victory. Sata later died in office in 2014, and the human rights situation has drastically deteriorated under Lungu’s presidency.
“What we have seen in Zambia, especially in the past five years, is an increasingly brutal crackdown on human rights, characterized by brazen attacks on any form of dissent,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Director for East and Southern Africa.
“Opposition leaders, journalists, media house and activists have all been targeted, and speaking out against allegations of government corruption or abuse has become more dangerous. Protests have been stopped or dispersed with unlawful and sometimes lethal force, and people who speak up against allegations of corruption have been intimidated and harassed.”
Below are excerpts of the report
Suppression of freedom of expression
Zambia has experienced a systematic erosion of the right to freedom of expression in the past five years. Authorities have abused the law to criminalize peaceful dissent, charging critics with a wide range of offences including criminal defamation, incitement of public disorder and sedition.
For example, on 9 March 2020, police arrested a 15-year-old boy in Kapiri Mposhi, and charged him with three counts of criminal libel after he allegedly criticized President Lungu on Facebook. He is currently awaiting trial.
Opposition leaders have also faced retaliation for criticizing the authorities. In 2017, the leader of the United Progressive Party (UPP), Saviour Chishimba, was arrested and detained for several days, after he criticized the government’s decision to invoke a state of emergency in response to a spate of arson attacks in the capital Lusaka. In 2019, the leader of Patriots for Economic Progress (PEP), Sean Tembo, was arrested on a charge of defamation for questioning the purchase of a US$400 million presidential jet, amid a national debt crisis.
Media outlets have also come under attack during Lungu’s presidency. In June 2016, one of the country’s leading daily newspapers, The Post, was forcibly shut down and liquidated over a disputed tax debt. The closure of the newspaper, which was known for its critical investigative work against government, was preceded by state-sanctioned brutality against staff.
In April 2020, the government revoked the broadcasting license of the country’s leading private television station, Prime TV. No specific reasons were given for the move, but the Independent Broadcasting Authority stated that the action had been taken in the public interest.
The crackdown has also led to an escalation of the excessive use of force by the police, which has been fatal in some cases. On 22 December 2020, police shot dead two unarmed people at a gathering of opposition supporters.
Several people had gathered to show their solidarity with Haikainde Hichilema, leader of the United Party for National Development (UPND), who had been summoned for questioning at police headquarters in Lusaka. State prosecutor Nsama Nsama, who was not part of the gathering, was shot dead while buying a meal at a nearby restaurant, while Joseph Kaunda, a UPND supporter, was shot by police as they dispersed the crowd. A day earlier, government had publicly urged police to use ‘any means necessary to maintain law and order’ when dealing with opposition supporters.
An investigation by Zambia’s Human Rights Commission established that the order to shoot came from Lusaka Police Commissioner Nelson Phiri, who was removed from service but remained uncharged at the time of writing the report.
In 2018, student Vesper Shimuzhila died when police threw a tear gas canister into her room, during their violent dispersal of a student protest. Her family were given $25,000USD in compensation but no officer has been charged.
Such impunity is now entrenched in Zambia. One human rights defender said:
“There has been such a rise in the levels of impunity that it now seems like a bottomless pit. There does not seem to be any bounds in terms of impunity and violations.” A number of other people have also lost their lives at the hands of state and non-state actors.
“Zambian authorities must commit to respecting, protecting, promoting and ensuring full respect for human rights before, during and after the 12 August election. The government must also end impunity for past human rights violations,” said Deprose Muchena.
“There is evidence of senior government officials fuelling the violence in Zambia over the past five years by the police. Anyone suspected to be responsible for human rights violations must be brought to justice in fair trials.”