Zambia: New Cyber Law Impedes Civil Liberties

President Edgar Lungu

Zambia is increasingly repressing the exercise of civic rights, a trend that is growing as the country heads to general elections in August 2021. Human rights defenders are equally worried that state agencies could apply the recently enacted Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act 2021 to further undermine the digital civic space.

President Edgar Lungu, who has been in power since 2015, is standing for re-election in the August 12 elections. In the last five years of his reign, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly have come under increasing attack, with opposition leaders and activists jailed, and independent media outlets shut down, according to an Amnesty International Report.

The government denies these accusations, claiming the country has a vibrant civil society, a thriving independent media, and an impartial judiciary that protects civil liberties. However, independent analysts dismiss the government’s claims, pointing out that there has been “a creation of a fear society through the demonising of civil society and political opposition, the punishing of dissent, and weaponising the law and applying it selectively against anyone critical of the state.”

The repression in the southern African country has been witnessed both offline and online. Freedom House ranked the country’s state of internet freedom in 2020 as “partly free”, citing network restrictions, arrest of pro-government commentators and online users. And with the recent enactment of the cyber crimes law, worries are growing that the government could employ it as yet another weapon to silence dissenters and critics. Crucially, the new law falls short on protecting individual rights to privacy, anonymity, and freedom of expression online.

Notably, the law was passed amidst criticism that it was primarily aimed at policing cyber space and gagging freedom of expression and speech of government critics and opponents ahead of the August 12, 2021 general election. The government passed the law after rejecting concerns raised by civil society about its regressive provisions.

According to the Bloggers of Zambia, during 2020 seven people were arrested under the Criminal Procedure Code for purportedly defaming the president through posts on social media. Meanwhile, a 2020 report by Citizen Lab, a global digital rights watchdog, identified Zambia as a possible customer of cyber espionage software. This was the second time that Zambia, alongside other African governments, was featured in the report that unmasks clients of surveillance software. The country has also embarked on a Safe City Project that is mounting 24-hour surveillance cameras in public places and on the main road networks, despite its lack of an operational data protection law and regulations to govern the use of such video surveillance.

According to CIPESA’s analysis of the law, while cyber security is critical in the highly evolving technological era, it is important that a rights-based approach is employed in the development of policies and laws to ensure that the adopted laws and policies do not wantonly limit individual rights and freedoms. The Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, 2021 in its current state offers some solutions to emerging challenges in the digital space but has wide negative impacts on the protection, promotion and enjoyment of digital rights and freedoms.

Under international human rights law, the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and information may only be restricted if prescribed by law, in pursuit of a legitimate aim, and if the restrictions are necessary and proportionate in pursuance of a legitimate aim. Many provisions in the Zambian law are vague and overly broad, and in contravention of the principle of legality. The law extends the powers of state authorities to restrict and punish online expression, and gives law enforcement agents leverage to conduct unsupervised surveillance without judicial oversight.

Indeed, the CIPESA analysis shows that Zambia’ cyber law falls short of the established regional and international human rights standards on the right to privacy as laid down in the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Declaration on Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information.

Accordingly, the Zambian parliament should consider repealing or amending the regressive provisions to ensure the protection of digital rights and freedoms. Short of this, the new law could only serve the purpose of handing enemies of democracy yet another weapon for silencing the legitimate expression of critics, political opponents, and ordinary citizens.

See here CIPESA’s full review of the ramifications of Zambia’s Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act 2021.