Saturday, 2 June 2018

Zambia's Free Speech Activists Angered By Proposed Cyber Laws

Activists discussing the proposed cyber laws
By Paul Shalala

Bloggers and free speech activists are angered with moves by the Zambian government to introduce three bills which are aimed at regulating the cyber space.

In the next sitting of parliament which opens in two weeks time, Transport and Communications Minister Brian Mushimba is expected to move the Cyber Security and Cyber Crime Bill, Data Protection Bill and the E-commerce Bills.

On May 2, a day before World Press Freedom Day, Zambia's Information Minister and Chief Government Spokesperson Dora Siliya said the cyber laws would not in any way infringe on the rights of ordinary citizens.

“Let me emphasise that government has a responsibility to protect its citizens against unscrupulous people who are using social media and other online platforms to spread fake news, hate speech, rumours and propaganda just to mislead and create despondency and chaos among citizens. In this regard, I am working closely with the Ministers of Justice and Transports and Communications to strengthen existing defamation laws and provide for cyber laws,” she said.

But activists are contesting these bills.

Freedom of expression is enshrined in the Zambian Constitution under Article 20 clause 1. 

Information Minister Dora Siliya
It reads as follows: "Except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression, that is to say, freedom to hold opinions without interference, freedom to receive ideas and information without interference, freedom to impart and communicate ideas and information without interference, whether the communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons, and freedom from interference with his correspondence."

Free speech campaigners are using this constitutional provision to base their fear that the cyber laws will give the state too much control thereby limiting free speech.

The campaigners have even started conversations on the topic under the hashtag #OpenSpaceZM

This fear has even been made worse by the announcement by the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA) that it will soon start arresting administrators of WhatsApp group where insults and bad behavior is exhibited by members.

"We are coming up with a law which will compel anyone who opens a WhatsApp group to register with us. They will need to come up with a code of conduct. If those are not followed, we will arrest the administrators or creators of those groups,” said Mofya Chisala who is the Director for Support Services at ZICTA.
This announcement was made on a live program on Zambia's state television station and it has been received with anger by both activists and citizens.
One annoyed activist is Edward Musosa, the Programmes Coordinator at the Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR) who took to WhatsApp to advise ZICTA.
"In terms of addressing the potential shrink in the online space, we need well informed CSOs on online advocacy such as MISA (Media Institute of Southern Africa) to take the lead in questioning these maneuvers. Otherwise, accountability is a broad concept and it can also lead to losing focus if everyday you are seen to be leading campaigns on different things. However, we should all be very concerned!" he said.

Activists have flooded Twitter with
messages on the Cyber Laws
His sentiments have been echoed by Richard Mulonga, a blogger who is the brains behind ZamBloggers, an organisation championing free speech.

"The cyber laws are a real threat to freedom of expression, press freedom and access to information. In reality, they are a threat to our democracy because democracy is about press freedom, dress of expression. Why has the process of drafting cyber laws been closed to other stakeholders?
Every law must be about protecting citizen rights. Therefore, the proposed cyber laws in Zambia must be about protecting citizen rights and enhancing democracy," said Mr Mulonga.

His argument is that government must involve all stakeholders in crafting the cyber laws and not th current scenario where the contents will only be known when the bills are presented in Parliament.

"You will see that 'fake news' is purposely vaguely defined. It is general and can be used to clamp down on critical citizen voices. There is no guarantee that cyber laws in Zambia will not be used to clampdown on citizens through arrests or surveillance," he added.

Another vocal critic of online regulation is Laura Miti, an accountability activist who wrote this: "The only reason government would want to regulate private use of social media is because citizens are using it effectively, to keep each other informed about the excesses of those in power. They don't want us to know, don't want us to ask questions.  #ItsOurCountry"

Across the continent, some governments use the veil of 'state security' to infringe on citizen rights.

This is the case in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya where new cyber laws have been passed and activists in Zambia fear the same scenario could reach us.

According to East African media, Uganda's parliament recently passed a law to impose a controversial tax on people using social media platforms.

The law imposes a 200 shilling ($0.05) daily levy on people using internet messaging platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp, Viber and Twitter.

It is believed that President Yoweri Museveni had pushed for the changes, arguing that social media encouraged gossip.

This controversial law is expected to come into effect on 1 July this year.

Brenda Bukowa, a media and communication lecturer at the University of Zambia argues that regulating the online space must be done with caution as it can affect free speech.
Some of the strategies the civil society wants
to use to counter the Cyber Law

Writing in her weekly column in the state owned Times of Zambia newspaper under the headline They Are Shutting Down Social Media! last Sunday, Brenda said the cyber laws may affect ordinary people on social media.

"‘Online media in a country like Zambia has opened up avenues for free speech and it can be argued that if regulation was enacted, the main victims would not be the purveyors of online misdemeanours but Zambia and its people’s freedom of expression. The results, would do far more damage to our democracy than any harm the culprits of social media abuse combined would bring. …Regulation at any level must be enforced with a careful consideration of the unique characteristics embedded in that society," she stated.

Meanwhile, the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia chapter has also expressed concern on the proposed law, saying they are a threat to the media.

“Whilst the intentions sound genuine, we are concerned that the laws have not been made public despite government stating that it will take the bills to parliament this month. Our concern over the proposed laws is that they seek to regulate a space that provides media and citizens the opportunity to enjoy their rights of freedom of expression, assembly and access to information. The online space as it stands, is far more accommodating than any other platform of expression and thus, the proposed laws stand as a threat to citizen’s and media’s rights to enjoying the named rights,” said MISA Zambia Chairperson Hellen Mwale yesterday.

In the past week, several civil society organisations have been meeting to find a way of fighting the cyber laws.

These organisations includes the Action for Community Accountability, Actionaid Zambia, Zambia Council for Social Development, GEARS, SACCORD, PANOS.