The International Press Institute (IPI) has expressed concern over the imposition of emergency powers in Zambia and recent comments made by the inspector-general of police that some publications could be closed while the 90-day state of emergency was in place.

On July 5, 2017 Zambian President Edgar Lungu initiated a “state of threatened public emergency” and indicated that he might declare a full state of emergency if the “existing situation” in the country is “allowed to continue”, a procedure set out in the country’s Constitution.

The move came amid a string of apparent arson attacks, including one that burnt down the capital Lusaka’s main market. Lungu alleged that supporters of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) were behind the attacks, which he said were intended to “make the country ungovernable.”

Zambia’s National Assembly approved the emergency powers invoked by Lungu on July 11 and extended the state of threatened emergency for a period of 90 days. The vote was held without the participation of 48 UPND members of parliament, who were suspended for 30 days without pay by the speaker of the National Assembly after they boycotted an address by Lungu to the house.

Invocation of Art. 31 of Zambia’s Constitution allows the president to invoke the Preservation of Public Security Act, which enables the president to prohibit public gatherings, impose curfews and restrict the media, among other actions. It also gives the police increased powers of arrest and detention.

Censorship suggested

Speaking to journalists at Zambia police headquarters in Lusaka on Saturday, police Inspector General Kakoma Kanganja suggested that some “publications” could be shut down while the emergency powers were in place.

“During this period, police will regulate and prohibit publication and dissemination of matters [that are] pre-judicial to public safety,” he said.

Kanganja noted that the regulations in the Preservation of Public Security Act could be revised at any time.

“As we speak, there will be additions to what I have commented on,” he said. “You will find [that] we’ll limit some of these publications, social media and the rest where people are abusing, we might end up limiting on those publications.”

IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis expressed concern that the imposition of emergency powers was politically motivated.

“Given developments in Zambia in the last year, the partial state of emergency would seem to be part of a broader effort that we have observed to silence critical voices, including the country’s remaining independent media outlets, and to step up the crackdown on the main opposition party, while at the same time fending off challenges from within his own party,” he commented.

“We fear that emergency rule could facilitate human rights violations and we call on Zambia’s government to respect the vital role of media freedom in a democracy and to refrain from exerting political pressure on the country’s media outlets.”

Zambia was until recently regarded a model for stability, democracy and human rights in Africa, but events leading up to and since disputed August 2016 general elections that saw President Lungu narrowly re-elected to a second term have raised serious concerns about the state of democracy and media freedom in Zambia.

UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema, who narrowly lost the 2016 presidential election to Lungu, is currently behind bars, arrested on trumped up treason charges after his motorcade allegedly blocked Lungu’s presidential motorcade in April.

Media suppression

Zambia’s independent media has largely been suppressed, with the most egregious case being the closure of tabloid newspaper The Post in late 2016. Prior to the 2016 elections, Zambia’s revenue authorities seized the offices and printing presses of the what was then the country’s leading independent newspaper over allegedly unpaid taxes.

Forced to produce the newspaper from a clandestine location for another five months, The Post was shut down for good in November after the government used complaints by four former staffers over unpaid wages to place the paper in liquidation proceedings.

In February, a warrant was issued for the arrest of Post owner and Editor-in-Chief Fred M’membe, who is accused of concealing Post assets and preventing a handover of the company’s books to the liquidator.

The independent newspaper The Mast, founded by M’membe and his wife Mutinta Mazoka-M’membe in the wake of The Post’s closure, has also been a target of pressure. The government has tried to prevent the printing of The Mast on numerous occasions, and the liquidator is now seeking its dissolution, alleging that the paper’s leaders converted Post assets.

Last August, the government also suspended the operating licences of the country’s largest privately-owned television channel, Muvi TV, and two private radio stations on “national security” grounds, although the suspensions were lifted after the broadcasters apologised. The government later acknowledged that the broadcasters were targeted because of their perceived bias against Lungu’s PF party before and after the general elections.