Police on Wednesday discontinued the defamation of Edgar Lungu case against Saviour Chishimba and consequently released him from detention.
Chishimba was unconditionally released after spending seven days in police cells.
Police arrested Chishimba over a video clip in which he wondered whether Lungu considered Zambia to be his father’s field for him to tell Zambians to bear with him for a while to be a dictator.
It’s clear that Edgar is abusing the police to harass, humiliate and silence political opponents. Detaining Chishimba for week on a bondable offence is tantamount to imprisoning him, depriving him of his freedom without trial and conviction by a court of law. The police is not a court of law. It is this excessive abuse of the police that makes people refer to Zambia as a police state and a dictatorship.
Was it really necessary for the police to treat Chishimba in that way? Do they really believe Chishimba can be silenced in this way? We have repeatedly advised against excessive reliance on the police to address political differences. We have pointed to a teaching of Nelson Mandela which says: ” A leader who relies on the police to solve problems is bound to come to grief.”
At the risk of sounding boring, we would to emphasise that freedom of expression is not an empty slogan to pay slipping service to. It is a hard-won historic right that helped to pave the way for the creation of the modern democratic world. Free speech is the fundamental bedrock for liberty of our society. Without the freedom to think, say, write, publish, broadcast, read, hear, love and hate what we choose, other freedoms would be impossible to imagine. Freedom of expression remains the only hope we have of knowing anything. It is how society conducts its debates between clashing opinions and makes its decisions about what it believes to be right and true.
The suppression of freedom of expression has always been the early hallmark of dictatorship. Look at the number of people who have been arrested by the police for merely expressing their views on Edgar and his minions! Freedom of expression is not to be rationed out like charity to only the most deserving cases. A right is a right, and it is not limited by any incumbent responsibilities. Of course, any good human being should be prepared to stand up and take responsibility for what they say. But the wish to protect some people from what others are saying about them cannot be used to trample on the freedom of others.
Freedom is always a messy business, filled with close judgment calls, contradictions and the need to defend it for the things you don’t like. But the bottom line is that infringements on that freedom are always worse and more dangerous to our society than the most egregious abuse of freedom might be.
Freedom of expression is nobody’s gift. Criminal defamation laws are a crime against liberty. Anybody with a liberal bone in their body recognises that criminal defamation laws are a disgrace to democracy and have no place in a civilised society. They are repugnant to the principle of free speech. Even Zimbabwe has abolished criminal defamation laws! The issue of freedom of expression is marred by twin ills. On one hand is the creeping intolerance of anything deemed offensive to Edgar and his minions, and an attempt to curtail it in the name of respect. We are supposed to be respectful and tolerant of wrongdoing by those in power. This is a Republic and not an absolute monarch. On the other hand, there’s a cult of non-judgmentalism that says some things ought to be beyond question or immune to “disrespectful” or “offensive” criticism. The net result of these trends is to enforce the culture of ‘You Can’t Say That’ in the media and beyond. We need to counter them both.
True tolerance means allowing others the freedom to say, broadcast and publish things that you don’t want to hear. Genuine judgmentalism means having the liberty to tell them exactly what you think of it. The first response to any controversy should be: You Can Say That. Just as long as you take responsibility for your words, and we can then say you’re talking bunk; or even tell you that you shouldn’t have said it, just because you can. Our best weapons in striving for the truth are scepticism and argument, not sanctimony and intolerance.