Amnesty International Secretary General Salil Shetty has asked President Edgar Lungu to stop using the criminal justice system to selectively target his critics and independent voices.
And Shetty has observed that freedoms of expression, assembly and association have been deteriorating in Zambia in the past two years.
But President Lungu’s press aide Amos Chanda says State House is concerned that Amnesty International may lose credibility if it continues attacking government in a similar manner opposition political party leaders are doing.
Speaking at a press conference in Lusaka yesterday which marked the conclusion of his visit to Zambia, Shetty revealed that he had asked President Lungu to stop using the criminal justice system to silence critics.
“When we met the President, our calls to him were very clear (i) stop using the criminal justice system to selectively target your critics, independent voices, (ii) please urgently amend for repeal the Public Order Act which is being abused again and again both in terms of the act itself and in terms of the way it is being implemented and interpreted, (iii) and ultimately the government must respect and protect the freedom of association, expression, and assembly which is not the case as it is right now,” Shetty said.
He said President Lungu had committed himself to consider their suggestions on the Public Order Act among other things.
“The meeting with President Lungu was long and we appreciated his openness. He committed himself to studying our proposals on the amendments that we suggested on the Public Order Act. He also expressed full commitment to look into the cases of unlawful land acquisition which we are raising, particularly the freedoms that are required for the participation of these poor communities,” Shetty said.
“While we appreciate his commitment and his openness in the meeting yesterday, we had a similar meeting with the leader of the opposition just today who also expressed strong commitment to human rights and freedoms respect for human rights. But the Amnesty international doesn’t go by words, we appreciate the words and the spoken commitments but at the end of the day we are going to live by actions. From our sides, we are going to take these commitments, and track the delivery of what they actually do in their promises and we will hold them to account.”
He noted that “two big elephants” in Zambia were clashing with each other.
“The other thing is that my own sense that we have a situation in the country now where the two big elephants are clashing with each other, the President and the leader of the opposition UPND political party. And ordinary citizens are suffering the consequences political battle. We met many many people from far flung areas, we are doing a piece of research on the unlawful occupation, acquisition of customary land in many parts of the country. We met the leaders from these communities, so many of these people have been displaced from their land, the chiefs, the councils, businessmen and without their consent, the land is being taken over. Food security has been put at risk. And my appeal when we met the President yesterday was that the government should be focused on the rights of these people, ordinary people who are suffering because of the political deadlock ,” Shetty said.
And Shetty observed that freedoms of expression, assembly and association have been deteriorating in Zambia in the past two years.
“The message that we want to communicate to the Zambian public and the Zambian government is that the world is watching Zambia. For decades, Zambia has been an island of peace and a supporter of progressive causes of government within the Southern African region but also across Africa. It has also been reputed as a country that has respected freedom of association, freedom of assembly and these freedoms have been enjoyed by civil societies, by many Zambians and by opposition political parties for a long time. I am not suggesting that Zambia has not had challenges in the past. It has challenges but despite all the challenges, it is a country which is seen as a country with respected basic freedom,” Shetty said.
“Now what we have seen in the last 18 months to two years is a varying set of challenges on the issue of freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association. We know from experience internationally that curbing freedoms is a recipe for destabilizing peace and feeding conflict. And we have to know that the curbing of freedom in this country comes on top of high levels of poverty and growing inequality. Civil and political rights and the rule of law are critical for achieving economic growth for achieving the sustainable development goals and for achieving any kind of development.”
Shetty said Amnesty International would work closely with the Human Rights Commission to track commitments made by both President Lungu and HH.
“So we will track the commitments made and we will hold this government to account as we work very closely with the national Human Rights Commission, the civil society communities and the Zambian members. Ultimately, the government has to be accountable to its own people. And we also said to the President and we also say this in every occasion that we appreciate some of the positives things for example the issue of the refugee crisis, the Great Lakes Region. Zambia historically has been very open to accepting refugees and treating them with dignity,” he said.
“So what we have seen in the last two years and what concerns us the most is the curbs on independent media, the restrictions on the rights to peaceful protests including by civil societies, and of course the attacks on key opposition leaders and parties. This has been done by both the abuse on the criminal justice system particularly the Public Order Act culminating in the declaration of the threatened emergency situation but also by allowing political cadres to run riots almost by being above the law.”
He recalled the chilling effects on several media houses which had faced intimidation.
“So let me give specific points on each one of these, let me start with the media. Of course the most visibly and celebrated space which has gotten a lot of publicity has been the closure of the post newspapers. But this is not the only case. We know a lot of radio stations where their licenses have been suspended, we know what has happened to the Muvi TV which is the country’s largest private television network, we know what happened with the online network the Zambian Watchdog which has also been shut down, so there many many instances that I can go on and on. I think the consequences of the actions taken on these specific media houses is that this has led to a chilling effect on several other media houses who are very cautious now, individual journalists are also self sensing themselves, a person getting phone calls from highest authorities asking them not to report on issues which are critical of the government,” Shetty said.
Shetty said it was unfortunate that some people were arrested for protesting against fire tenders.
“Civil society leaders and human rights defenders are also facing that, they are seeing a lot of abuse on the Public Order Act, as you know the most recent incident happened on the 29th of September is that six prominent civil society leaders including Laura Miti, Lewis Mwape, and singer Pilato were arrested simply for demanding peacefully accountability from the government on potential corruption scandal related to the fire trucks. So that’s in relation to the CSOs, the human rights defenders,” Shetty said, who also noted attacks on opposition political parties.
And Shetty said Amnesty International was a people’s movement which was free to speak the truth as it had no agenda with any country’s economic or political ideologies.
“Am sure most of you are aware that Amnesty international is a people’s movement, we are not a classic NGO. We have seven million active members across the world, we take no money from governments or from companies for our research and campaigns. We are completely independent. We have no agenda of any country, we have no agenda of any economic ideologies or political ideologies. Our only ideology is international human rights law, every person in this country, that is what we are interested in,” said Shetty.
But according to Zambia Daily Mail, Chanda told journalists at Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe International Airport yesterday that it was not right for a highly respected international organisation to start raising unjustified accusations against government.