Severe Freedom of Information and Civil Liberty restrictions in Zambia’s new Cyber Law
Zambia’s Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act, 2021 (“the Cyber Act”) is the latest iteration of Zambian legislation granting the Government of Zambia sweeping powers to restrict freedom of expression, and silence the voices of its opposition. President Edgar Chagwa Lungu - who is facing a re-election contest in August - has publicly declared his intention to use the new law to arrest “social media abusers” who propagate insults against government officials, including himself.
In May 2021, an ILP international Freedom of Expression and media expert produced a detailed report into the Cyber Act in response to a request by Zambian NGO, CUTS International.
The report outlines how the Cyber Act potentially opens the gate to the mass silencing of opposition in the lead-up to the Zambian presidential elections in August 2021. The blanket suppression of legitimate online communications using the Cyber Act would violate international and continental standards of freedom of expression and privacy rights on the internet. Amnesty International recently reported that a 15-year-old boy was arrested and is awaiting trial for three counts of criminal libel after he allegedly criticised the Zambian president on Facebook.
The Cyber Act also risks establishing a framework for government surveillance and the interception of private online communications, according to the expert analysis. These expansive powers raise serious concerns of mass arrests of civil rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians and ordinary citizens critical of the Lungu Government.
Zambia’s new Cyber Act came into force in March 2021, and significantly reduces freedom of expression, media freedom, and the right to privacy in Zambia according to the report. The legitimate response to escalating threats to cybersecurity must be balanced against the protection of the rights of Zambian citizens concluded the analysis. Currently, the Cyber Act fails to strike this balance, and tips the scales heavily against the rights of individuals to express opinion, receive information and maintain personal privacy online and offline. Urgent action is required by the Government of Zambia to restore this balance.
The Report recommends the following urgent changes to the legislation:
Zambia’s Cyber Act must urgently be amended to ensure that the legitimate aims of promoting cybersecurity and combatting cybercrime are properly balanced with the rights of individuals to express opinion, receive information and maintain personal privacy online.
Important terms and provisions throughout the Cyber Act should be defined with the precision necessary to satisfy principles of predictability, transparency, legitimacy, necessity, and proportionality.
The Cyber Act should be amended to align with the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection to establish a legal framework ensuring the right to privacy and other fundamental rights and freedoms
Interceptions of communications should only be carried out in emergency situations, and applications to carry out the interception should be authorised by a court.
Read ILP’s full analysis on the Zambian Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act (enacted March 2021) for CUTS here