Case of Zambia’s 42-for-42 tests freedom of expression and assembly

On May 17, six Zambia activists, civil society leader’s and a musician will appear before the magistrates in Court 3 in the capital Lusaka. This is not the first appearance as their case has been postponed several times. The six (pictured) are jointly charged with disobeying lawful orders after they held a protest last September questioning the government why it has used 42-million Kwacha to purchase 42 firetrucks, a cost that the six say is exorbitant. Laura Miti of the Alliance for Community Action who is also one of the six accused tells CIVICUS briefly about the case and why it is important.

Defiant and standing strong: Six of the Zambian activists and civil society leaders at one of the many court appearances after they held a protest in Lusaka last year questioning the government over expenditure

1. Can you tell us more about the court case in which you are appearing for in court on May 17?

The court case is the result of a peaceful protest that the Alliance for Community Action led on Parliament on 29 September 2017. The protest was called for together with civil society organisations and the general public to demand that accountability for a purchase by government of 42 fire trucks for 42 million Kwacha. Protesting and freedom of expression are both values enshrined in our Constitution so we were not breaking the law. The protest was broken up by the police and 6 protesters arrested and charged with disobeying lawful orders. Instead we were arrested and held for 10 hours and later released after being charged.

2. What does this case mean for the state of the freedom to protest and freedom of expression in Zambia?

By misapplication of the Public Order Act, Police in Zambia routinely prevent or break up protests that are even mildly critical of the government. However, protests or marches in support of government are allowed to go on even if the protester are openly breaking the law by being carrying weapons and being violent. The way this case has been held is an assault on both freedoms and it is concerning for us.

3. What challenges do you face as a woman human rights defender?

The terrain for women who speak out and challenge authorities is not easy for activists and it is even tougher for women due to the patriarchal nature of our society. As happens with all female activists, those who are unhappy with my work tend to attack my person and speak about my private life rather than engage with the issues at hand. This then discourages other women from speaking out and holding the state to account.

4. How can international civil society support you and the other 5 you are jointly charged with?

The defence of human rights in Zambia is for Zambians to ensure but a breakdown of human rights anywhere in the world, affects us all. We therefore believe that the excesses of the Zambian government should be called out by all who believe in a just world. When representatives of the Zambian government travel to international fora, they should be asked to explain the steep degeneration of the Zambian democratic space and respect for human rights in the last few years.

5. Please describe in one paragraph what you or your CSO does in Zambia

The Alliance for Community Action (ACA) works to grow the routine demand and supply of public resource accountability in Zambia, with focus on instituting the demand in the general public. The ACA would like Zambians to routinely link the quality of services they access to the budgetary and expenditure choices made by government and to demand accountability. The ACA encourages Zambians to speak up and ask targeted questions about how public money is spent and capacitates ordinary citizens to do so.