In his inauguration speech on 24 August 2021, President Hakainde Hichilema declared a “new dawn” for Zambia. It is critical that this transformation extends to the internet sphere.
Digital rights in Zambia suffered under former president Edgar Lungu, as documented in recent research from Freedom House and Paradigm Initiative. Zambians saw this at play during the August general elections: reports spread weeks ahead of polling day that then president Lungu would cut off the internet as voting took place.
Zambian and international civil society mobilised in response, prompting the government to deny the reports. Then, on election day, WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter and Messenger were blocked on most networks, apparently on the order of the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA). The restrictions cut off discussion about voting and day-to-day conversation alike. Access was restored only after Chapter One Foundation, a Zambian human rights organisation, sued ZICTA.
To reverse the decline in Zambia’s internet freedom, President Hichilema should ensure open access to the internet, reject a trend toward prosecutions for online speech and protect Zambians’ personal data.
A commitment to respecting online expression and privacy would ensure that the internet continues to serve as a tool for civic engagement and as an enabler of democracy in Zambia.
Ensuring access and protecting free speech
First, Hichelema and the newly created Ministry of Technology and Science should signal a break with the previous administration by announcing a commitment to ensuring access to the internet and social media.
In previous years, network disruptions were reported in strongholds of Hichilema’s United Party for National Development in times of political sensitivity. Such blunt censorship interrupts everything from everyday communication to digital financial transactions to online learning.
A commitment from Hichilema to refrain from ordering internet shutdowns and social media blocks would be a powerful testimony to his government’s change in approach.
The new administration should further safeguard the right of Zambians to express themselves without fear of…