UNITED States Embassy Chargé d’Affaire David Young says it is unfortunate that in Zambia today, it is frowned upon to say anything critical about government or leaders without risking being censored or threatened with arrest.

And Young has condemned Kabwe Central PF member of parliament for threatening to break protesting youths’ bones.

Speaking during a digital American Independence day celebration held by the American embassy on July 4, Young noted that anyone who occupies public office should be willing to be criticized; fairly and unfairly.

Below is a transcript on his comments:

“It is unfortunate in Zambia today that it is frowned upon to say anything critical about seeing your government leaders or problems in government without risking being censored or even threatened with arrests. The first of reservists for freedoms is freedom of speech and in many ways, it is the foundational of civil and political rights. It is central to all freedoms, expression through the press, assembly, peaceful protests, belief. If you can’t say what you believe, you aren’t truly free. Today, freedom of speech is under threat around the world. In many countries, you risk imprisonment for simply voicing your opinion which is the violation of the basic tenet of liberty.

Now freedom of speech is often difficult because at its, core it requires that people who decide to go into public life must tolerate criticism from all corners. Whether you are a mayor, a police chief, a diplomat or a national leader, democracy requires you to sign up for public criticism. If you want to have political power and influence and status and responsibilities of public office, you have to be willing to be criticized fairly and unfairly sometimes you might even be called names.

Now, I am not an elected official, I am a career diplomat but I occupy a position of public trust from my country and that means I will be criticized for what I do or say and for the policies of my government which I represent. But I defend that criticism even when it is directed against me because that is freedom of speech, our utmost sacred right as free people, that is what freedom means. In the United States today, our commitment to freedom of speech is on television screens around the world. As the whole world knows we have some serious problems that need serious attention; racist violence and incidences of police brutality.

The horrific killing of George Floyd has jolted America weak to the need to change our policies, protect our citizens and address systematic problems of racism. That is where freedom of speech comes in, if we didn’t have freedom of speech, we wouldn’t have continued to improve as individuals and as a nation. We wouldn’t have allowed freedom of speech and debates in the press, in social media and peaceful protests in our streets. Today, I am hopeful that out of the terrible tragedy of Mr Floyd’s death, some good may come precisely because our citizens are exercising their freedom of speech to press for much needed change.

Now please allow me to share a couple of reflections on freedom of speech in Zambia. Like the United States and other countries, Zambia is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and thus committed to free speech. Some people say if you are criticizing the President, you are unpatriotic. One leader in the National Assembly said ‘government and party cadres should break the bones of its critics,’ that is inflammatory and not a peaceful exercise of freedom of speech. For me, freedom of speech needs to take place in the context of peaceful expression.

If party cadres break into a radio station because the host is interviewing an opposition leader, that is a violation of freedom of speech. If media outlets that feature opposition and critical voices are closed, that is not freedom of speech. And when the Public Order Act is unevenly applied allowing one party unfair advantage of holding events and rallies while opposing parties and civil society groups are not granted the same, that is restriction on freedom of speech.

Now at the same time these freedoms must be used responsibly. Social media is an important part of our lives today and can be used in a thousand different ways, both good and bad. With cautious strive to ensure that social media is not used to distribute hate speech or misogynistic speech but when discussing the regulations of social media, it is important not to outlaw, prohibit fair comment and criticism of public officials. Respectful and peaceful debate and disagreement are essential parts of freedom of speech, our most precious right. I strongly encourage Zambia to promote and protect these freedoms which are essential to your democracy. To my Zambian friends, in government and outside government, I am convinced that your democracy and governance in the country will be strengthened by encouraging these fundamental freedoms.”

Watch Young’s speech below: