The law on defamation of the President is provided for in Section 69 of the Penal Code, Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia. The law provides that any person who ‘with intent brings the name of the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt, publishes any defaming or insulting matter whether in writing, print or word of mouth, is guilty of an offence.’ If found guilty could be imprisoned for a term of up to three years. On the other hand, Article 20 of the Constitution of Zambia guarantees freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, unless enjoyment of such a right is shown not to be justifiable in a democratic society (art.20 (3) (c)). In the last three decades this law has been used to victimize critics of the government and in particular, opposition politicians and journalists.
Following the election of the United Party for National Development (UPND) government in August 2021 and considering that the repeal of defamation laws was an important aspect of the party’s election campaigns and manifesto, it was expected that the laws that were controversial to the Zambian democracy would be swiftly amended. However, cases of arrests of opposition politicians for defamation of the president have increased and government’s commitment to reforming this archaic law appears uncertain. Nevertheless, President Hichilema announced in Parliament on the occasion of the official opening of the second session of the 13th National Assembly that government would be bringing to this sitting of parliament the defamation of the President bill for repeal.
This public dialogue forum aimed to examine the relevance of the Defamation of the President law in the context of a democratic society, where criticism of government actions and holding the government to account are cardinal. While opinions on the relevance of this law are varied, it is not difficult to observe that the criminal justice system has been placed under pressure to contain personal criticism directed at the President under the guise of protecting the office. The keynote address was delivered by Mr. John Sangwa SC, a constitutional lawyer from Simeza Sangwa & Associates and a critical voice of conscious to the country.
The public dialogue forum was organised by FES Zambia in partnership with the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD). The participants in attendance included the government, political parties, civil society organisations and oversight institutions and the universities. The attendees included representatives from the Ministry of Justice, the Law Association of Zambia, Action Aid Zambia, Patriots for Economic Progress (PeP), Media Institute of Southern Africa-ZAMBIA (MISA Zambia), Council of churches in Zambia, Youth Unite Zambia, Transparency International Zambia, the University of Zambia and the National Institute for Public Administration.