CIVICUS urges Zambia to guarantee an enabling environment for Civil Society

Report
from CIVICUS
Published on 08 Feb 2013

Johannesburg. 8 February 2013. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation expresses serious concerns on the escalating campaign to silence independent dissent in Zambia, calling on the government to take immediate steps to protect media and civil society freedoms.

A number of civil society organizations advocating for greater civic engagement in Zambia’s ongoing constitution-making process have recently been threatened with deregistration. Moreover, in an apparent attempt to suppress voices critical of President Michael Sata and the ruling Patriotic Front, several journalists and political activists have been arrested on various charges including defamation of the President and operating unsanctioned media outlets.

On 26 December 2012, the Office of Registrar of Societies informed the Foundation for Democratic Process (FODEP), a non-governmental organization established in 1992 to promote and strengthen democratic governance in Zambia, that their registration would be discontinued in 28 days. The letter, which was sent without prior notification, reportedly makes several unfounded allegations of organisational misconduct including “pursuing objectives contrary to the objectives for which [FODEP] was formed” and “failing to furnish [the Office of Registrar of Societies] of such duly audited accounts”. FODEP has since issued an exhaustive response questioning the validity of the Office of Registrar of Societies’ assertions.

“The involuntarily dissolution of a civil society organization should only be considered as a measure of last resort and subject to independent judicial oversight” said Tor Hodenfield, Policy and Advocacy Officer at CIVICUS. “We urge the Zambian government to reconsider its decision to deregister FODEP and hope the Patriotic Front government will make good on its campaign promise to guarantee an enabling environment for civil society.”

Key among civil society concerns in Zambia is the existence on the statute books of a restrictive NGO law and whose application has been sporadic. The 2009 NGO Act requires all NGOs to register and empowers the government to refuse registration on broad grounds. The law also empowers government officials to dictate geographic and thematic areas of operation for NGOs and direct the harmonisation of NGO activities with officially dictated priorities, which impact upon the independence of the civil society sector.

Moreover, intensified incursions on the freedoms of association and expression are raising the spectre of democratic backsliding in Zambia. Several independent journalists and political activists have recently been detained for reporting on sensitive topics. On 9 January 2013, freelance journalist Chanda Chimba III, creator of “Stand Up for Zambia,” a 2011 documentary series critical of President Michael Sata, was arrested on charges including unlawful printing and possession of property suspected to be proceeds of crime.

Prior to his arrest, Chimba had published a series of articles questioning the government’s democratic trajectory. Two members of the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), former Information Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha and former Permanent Secretary Samson Phiri, have been charged with defamation for instructing the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) to broadcast the documentary.

CIVICUS calls on the government of Zambia to respect media freedoms and ensure an enabling environment for civil society in line with recommendations adopted during the country’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council on 30 October 2012. At a minimum the following conditions should be assured for all civil society actors: freedom of association; freedom of expression; the right to operate free from unwarranted state interference; and the right to communicate and cooperate; the right to seek and secure funding; and the state’s duty to protect.