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Zambia Repeals Controversial Defamation Law

President-elect Hakainde Hichilema (C) waves to supporters after a press briefing at his residence in Lusaka, Zambia, Aug. 16, 2021.
President-elect Hakainde Hichilema (C) waves to supporters after a press briefing at his residence in Lusaka, Zambia, Aug. 16, 2021.

LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Critics of Zambia's law against insulting the president have welcomed the government's repeal of the controversial measure as a step forward for democracy. Rights groups say the colonial-era law has been used to silence government critics. President Hakainde Hichilema announced the repeal over the weekend along with the abolition of the death penalty.

Daniel Sinjwala Libati, a human rights lawyer, told VOA that he is happy with the repeal of the defamation law, announced late Friday by Hichilema.

“Very good, very good,” he said. “It allows people to freely criticize, not insult, freely criticize the presidency and provide checks and balances and constructive criticism in line with freedom of expression under our bill of rights.”

Political analyst Guess Nyirenda said while he is happy with the amendment of the law, a lot still needs to be done to promote freedom of expression in Zambia.

“We would like to urge President Hakainde Hichilema to set the tone and continue doing good especially in attending to the draconian and archaic laws,” he said.

Opposition National Democratic Party leader Saboi Imboela has been arrested multiple times under the defamation law.

She told VOA that while she welcomes the repeal of the law, she urges Zambians to exercise caution. She noted that the existence of cybersecurity laws is a concern, as they still restrict freedom of expression.

“I see a situation whereby they are going to use any laws whatsoever to ensure that they get to the political opponents, so the people in Zambia should not even feel comfortable,” said Imboela. “They should be careful now actually more than ever before about what they say on Facebook because the president and his people are now going to use the cyber laws to come after you for whatever it is you are going to say.”

In a statement late Friday, Hichilema also announced the repeal of the death penalty. Zambia’s last execution took place in 1997 but some 250 people were still on death row as of 2021, including nine people newly sentenced.

Mwelwa Muleya, spokesperson for the Zambia Human Rights Commission, which oversees human rights issues in the country, told VOA the repeal of the laws will improve Zambia ‘s human rights record following increased arrests of political opponents.

“The signing of that bill into law is a landmark development towards enhancing fundamental rights to life and freedom of expression and must be commended by everyone,” said Muleya.

Earlier in 2022, Amnesty International’s secretary-general, Agnes Callamard, met with Hichilema in Zambia, urging his government to repeal the defamation law, which had been used to silence critics since its enactment in 1965.

During his election campaign last year, Hichilema promised to uphold human rights and freedom of expression.

In the past year alone, at least 12 critics and opponents of Hichilema were arrested for insulting the president, some multiple times.