In December 2022, Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema ended the death penalty and officially repealed a controversial law against publicly defaming or insulting the president. Under the Penal Code, Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia, Section 69, Zambians who ridiculed the president verbally or in writing could be imprisoned for up to three years. Section 69 had been in place since the Amendment Act. No. 6 of 1965 when Zambia was still a multi-party democratic state. Hichilema’s decision comes after considerable backlash for the arrest of political opponents.
While the repeal of this law is a step in the right direction, the control of the news media has long been an issue in Zambia and will be challenging to overcome. Media control was considered integral to the foundation of nationhood and unity in Zambia under the leadership of Kenneth Kaunda. Kaunda used the media to defend his Humanist policies, his place in power, and his one-party state (1973–1990), which has set a certain tone in the decades since.
Kaunda’s plans to seize the mass media in anticipation of his implementation of a one-party state are clear in United National Independence Party (UNIP) records. He saw the value in controlling the narratives being broadcast to and read by Zambians. However, Zambians found ways to subvert, to combat, and to protest this control. For instance, during Kaunda’s Seminar on Mass Media and National Development from August 1–2, the 1972 Committee A of Central Province, made up of Zambia Information Services officers, suggested journalists exercise “self-discipline” instead of “the introduction of censorship.” They believed the Zambian media could police itself.
Instead of outright censorship, the Kaunda regime moved to control newspapers from the inside by hiring staff who would publish or broadcast favorable perspectives on the government. Kaunda’s one-party state essentially controlled the Times of Zambia and Sunday Times of Zambia, Daily Mail, and Zambia National Broadcasting Company in this way. Considered the most successful of the newspaper takeovers, The Times newspapers were popular and widely read in the mid-1970s. The Times promoted all major developments of UNIP, the government, and the economy favorably and without losing readership.
However, other publications were not as easy to control. When University of Zambia (UNZA) students passed out leaflets that described Humanism as merely “a byword for capitalist corruption” in 1982, the response from Kaunda’s administration was swift and severe. The students’ subsequent strike against the creation of a Humanism department at UNZA provoked a university-wide closure, followed by suspensions, expulsions, and even deportations. Students retaliated in their own way by performing a play called Black Mamba. The play, written by Kabwe Kasoma, was about Zambian struggles for independence—but it featured Simon Kapwepwe, Kaunda’s most bitter rival. The play was then banned, but not before UNZA students had made their point. Repression of UNZA student pamphlets, such as TRUNZA, and protests also illustrate the lengths the Kaunda regime went to quash criticism.
Despite early hopes, the return to multi-party politics in Zambia did not solve the issue of freedom of the press in Zambia. The Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) did not fulfill its promises to liberate the Zambian media between 1991 and 2001. Instead, it continued to use executive power over the press, for example, by arresting, harassing, suing, and intimidating staff of The Post. The press has remained too effective a tool for Zambian leadership to concede.
The cycle of the restriction of free speech in Zambia illustrates how a state’s repressive and authoritarian control of the media erodes citizens’ trust of the state, which in turn begins dissolving state power. This leads the state to become more violent and more restrictive in an attempt to take back control, which incites deeper resistance. Once citizens push a regime from power, the next regime makes promises—and the cycle begins anew. The solution of this issue has historically remained in the hands of Zambian readers, listeners, and viewers and in the independent media. In 1999, Isaac Phiri argued that the solution to media repression in Zambia was in civil society—churches, associations, human rights groups, and NGOs. This also holds true. The end of restrictive laws in the country have always been the result of Zambians’ tireless work to keep their leaders accountable.
Now, fifty-nine years after independence, Zambian administrations must make better concessions regarding free speech, especially in the era of cybercommunication. For example, in 2021, Zambians protested the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act and have continued to call for its repeal or revision. The Hichilema administration should take heed. Zambians will continue to fight tooth and nail for their freedom of expression. They will continue to work, as they have since the Kaunda regime, to end the vicious cycle of restrictive publishing laws and violent suppression.