In his inauguration speech on August 24, 2021, President Hakainde Hichilema declared a “new dawn” for Zambia. It is critical that this transformation extend to the internet sphere.
Digital rights in Zambia suffered under former president Edgar Lungu, as documented in recent research from Freedom House and Paradigm Initiative. Zambians saw this at play during the August general elections: reports spread weeks ahead of polling day that then president Lungu would cut off the internet as voting took place.
Zambian and international civil society mobilized in response, prompting the government to deny the reports. Then, on Election Day, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter, and Messenger were blocked on most networks, apparently on the order of the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA). The restrictions cut off discussion about voting and day-to-day conversation alike. Access was only restored after Chapter One Foundation, a Zambian human rights organization, sued ZICTA.
To reverse the decline in Zambia’s internet freedom, President Hichilema should ensure open access to the internet, reject a trend toward prosecutions for online speech, and protect Zambians’ personal data. A commitment to respecting online expression and privacy would ensure that the internet continues to serve as a tool for civic engagement, and as an enabler of democracy in Zambia.
Ensuring access and protecting free speech
Firstly, President Hichelema and the newly created Ministry of Technology and Science can signal a break with the previous administration by announcing a commitment to ensuring access to the internet and social media.
In previous years, network disruptions were reported in strongholds of President Hichilema’s United Party for National Development (UPND) in times of political sensitivity. Such blunt censorship interrupts everything from everyday communication to digital financial transactions to online learning. A commitment from President Hichilema to refrain from ordering internet shutdowns and social media blocks would be a powerful testimony to his government’s change in approach.
The new administration should further safeguard the right of Zambians to express themselves without fear of repercussions. Under the former president, Zambians risked arrest for speech deemed insulting to Lungu on social media. Take, for instance, Facebook user Enockson Banda, who was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in March 2019 for deriding him on the platform.
When people can be arrested or fined for their posts online, they may begin to censor themselves. But unfettered speech—even when rancorous—is critical to maintaining a vibrant democracy. President Hichilema’s government should refrain from prosecuting such dissent, and direct law enforcement agents to avoid wrongfully arresting Zambians for speaking out on social media.
Worryingly, in March 2021, the Lungu government dramatically reshaped its approach to online content, with concerning implications for online speech.
The Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act bars the production and distribution of content “tending to corrupt morals.” It also criminalizes the use of electronic communications to “coerce, intimidate, harass, or cause emotional distress to a person,” without defining those terms. Such broad, vague language is ripe for abuse by powerful people seeking to suppress online criticism. Some of these provisions carry hefty penalties of up to five years’ imprisonment.
Speculation about the Cyber Security Act’s enforcement also has further driven self-censorship among Zambians.
Officials in the new government should not enforce these provisions against Zambians who use the internet to discuss the issues of the day, share commentary, or provide necessary checks and balances on their government. While users must remain on guard against misinformation and propaganda, the internet facilitates the spread of necessary and reliable information, particularly from journalists, bloggers, and social media users reporting on key events.
Protecting user data
Finally, the new government should protect the privacy of Zambians. The Data Protection Act 2021 establishes landmark safeguards for personal data in the country. Without the resources for implementation and enforcement, however, the law will do little to safeguard Zambians’ personal information from private companies and bad actors, nor will it promote the country’s aspirations of a transformed digital economy. President Hichilema’s administration should ensure the timely establishment of a Data Protection Commission, with an independent and competent commissioner to spearhead and enforce Zambia’s personal data protection agenda.
President Hichilema should moreover hold his own government to the same standards to which he holds private companies. The Cyber Security Act expands the scope of how the government can monitor the communication of Zambians, while the Data Protection Act offers problematic exceptions to safeguards for personal data in criminal investigations. Zambia’s law enforcement should only seek access to personal data when it is essential to the investigation at hand, explicitly provided for under Zambian law, and subject to judicial oversight.
Personal data and communications information can be exploited by companies and governments alike to expose the intimate details of peoples’ lives, from their involvement in social movements to their personal beliefs and professional pursuits. At-risk communities like political dissidents, human rights defenders, civil society actors, whistleblowers, and journalists are particularly vulnerable to such monitoring. By protecting Zambians’ privacy, the new president can affirm his commitment to human rights.
During the August elections, Zambians acted to protect internet freedom. Now, President Hichilema must act to safeguard Zambians’ digital rights for the future.
By Bulanda T. Nkhowani and Kian Vesteinsson
Bulanda T. Nkhowani is a Program Officer for Southern Africa at Paradigm Initiative.
Kian Vesteinsson is a Research Analyst for Technology and Democracy at Freedom House.