Church asks Lungu not to sign cyber bill into law

THE three church mother bodies say Zambians desire to hold free, fair, credible and peaceful 2021 elections.

And the three church mother bodies have appealed to the conscience of the President Edgar Lungu not to sign the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill of 2021 bill into law.

In a joint statement, the Council of Churches in

Zambia (CCZ), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) and the Zambia Conference of Catholic Bishops (ZCCB) acknowledge the efforts that have been made by government, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) and non-state actors, including private citizens, in preparing for the August 12 elections in Zambia.

CCZ president Bishop Sauros Phaika, EFZ chairperson Bishop Paul Mususu, ZCCB president Bishop George Lungu said they had noted the difficulties that the country was going through, economically and socially, worsened by the debt burden as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on people’s lives.

They said they were aware that a good number of stakeholders were not satisfied with what was going on in the country economically, politically and socially.

“Having read and interpreted the signs of our time in these difficult days, we wish to once again share with you, our anxieties on the state of the nation as well as the hope and faith we have together in God. We pray that the Lord may guide us in overcoming the challenges that we face as a country,” they stated.

The three leaders said as the country moves towards the August elections, there were issues currently affecting the country and others that might affect the credibility of the 2021 elections in August.

On the 2021 electoral challenges, the church mother bodies said they appreciated the concerns President Lungu raised during his address to Parliament on February 12 concerning politically motivated violence.

“He indicated that one of the root causes was the polarisation of the Zambian society according to regional and ethnic lines, promoted by politicians. The President requested all of us to condemn violence and tribalism. We are further aware that political violence is often committed by cadres belonging to the ruling party and also by cadres belonging to the opposition in the name of self-defence,” they stated.

“Unfortunately, violence has sometimes been committed by the Zambia police, who are supposed to protect citizens and instead use lethal weapons leading to loss of lives. Regrettably, despite the available video evidence of well-known people who engage in acts of violence and utter sentiments of tribalism/regionalism, no action has been taken. Decisive action against any person engaging in electoral related violence must be reported to the ECZ for appropriate electoral sanctions and the police for criminal charges. At the same time, we strongly appeal to political leaders to prevail over their members and ensure that they engage in peaceful campaigns. This way, impunity will be curbed and violence related to the electoral process will be minimised.”

The trio said they were grateful to the ECZ for releasing the provisional register, which gives an indication of the number of voters that had been captured.

“We have noted the obvious differences of the numbers between the provinces whose NRC issuance was restricted and those who had a longer period of obtaining their cards as well as those who experienced challenges during the registration of voters,” they said.

“We wish to inform the nation that we are currently studying the provisional register and analysing the data and will share our findings in due course. We are doing this because the Voter’s Roll is a very important document that determines the credibility of any election.”

They stated that the burden of ensuring law and order in the country lies on all Zambias, although the police carry a special mandate to enforce law and order where society fails to voluntarily regulate itself.

“Given the diverse interests there is in Zambia, especially during elections, the police service has to stand firm and remain impartial at all times, if it has to win the confidence and trust of the people,” they stated.

They reminded the nation that the aim of rule of law was to limit and check the arbitrary, oppressive, and despotic tendencies of those in power, and to ensure equal treatment and protection of all citizens irrespective of race, tribe, class, status, religion, place of origin, or political persuasion.

“It means having a legal framework that is fair, impartial, particularly in regard to human rights, public security and safety. Authority is legitimate if there is an established legal and institutional framework, and if decisions are taken in accordance with the accepted institutional criteria, processes, and procedures,” they said.

They said the perception that law enforcement agents had been biased and only favouring individuals from the ruling party, was now a reality that is making non ruling party members take the law into their own hands.

They said incidents where police stand by and watch members of the ruling party destroying property belonging to citizens was dangerous because it has the potential to erode the reduced confidence people have in police protection.

On the media, the three leaders said closely linked to the freedom of expression was press freedom.

They said the media provides a platform for people to air their views and opinions, a right which was also provided for by the Zambian Constitution.

“However, the law also contains some provisions that the government can use to restrict this freedom. Two of Zambia’s four most widely circulated newspapers are public media, i.e. published by Government. Public media also includes radio and television stations financed from public resources. However, the public media has failed to fairly provide a platform for all Zambians, regardless of their political affiliation, to air their views and express their opinions on them,” they said.

They said the cracking down of the private independent media that took place before and after the elections in 2016 sent a clear message to all private media that criticising government decisions and actions could put them in trouble.

They said the Post Newspaper on April 24, 2017 had its property, which included printing press, radio equipment, trucks, and other vehicles, auctioned despite the case still being heard in the High Court.

“In addition, some journalists from private stations that broadcast call-in and other talk show programmes on which diverse and critical viewpoints were expressed freely, received threats from senior government and ruling party officials and politicians. MUVI TV and Komboni radio were temporarily shut down just after the 2011 elections. Prime TV has become the latest private media house to be closed down and there seems to be no hope it will ever be broadcasting again,” they said.

“All these actions are a direct attack on the freedom of expression that Zambians are entitled to enjoy. If there are administrative issues where media houses are found wanting, these should be dealt with in a fair and just manner and all media houses should be treated in the same way when found not compliant with statutory obligations.”

They noted that President Lungu during his address to Parliament on February 12, 2021 indicated that his government recognises the importance of the media and a media policy was launched in November 2020.

They said the policy aims at promoting freedom of expression and guarantees press freedom.

“The said policy is also anchored on media freedom, media pluralism, media independence and safety of journalists. On the other hand, media houses have continued to be harassed and closed while some of the radio stations continue to be attacked by political cadres who are intolerant of divergent views. Once more, we await to see the concrete measures that will be taken to guarantee media freedoms during the forthcoming elections,” they said.

They also appealed to the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to show that they were truly independent, effective and act in a manner that is fair and protective of all the media.

They appealed to all media houses to exercise journalism for peace by avoiding sensational journalism and always aspiring to be truthful, fair and ethical in their reporting.

On shrinking democratic space, they said the civic and political space that Zambians possess under the constitution was a hard-won product of anti-colonial struggle, and had been key to the progress made since then towards overcoming poverty and exclusion in our country.

The three church mother bodies said they were disheartened to see the country moving backwards by using the same exclusion political strategies that the colonialists used such as the POA, restriction in the use of the public media, use of violence and arbitrary arrest to scare political opponents and members of the public.

“In addition to this, media platform restriction has now extended to social media as government has taken to parliament the Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Bill of 2021. We are aware that this has passed the third reading and is awaiting the assent of the President. Though the overall objectives of the bill are noble, we are concerned that this being an election year, when the atmosphere is politically charged, a number of stakeholders will be suspicious of the intentions of government and the possible abuse of the rights for those who already feel oppressed,” they said.

They said they were equally aware that many Zambians and organisations, such as the Law

Association of Zambia (LAZ), political parties and a number of CSOs had raised concerns about the bill and demanded that it be withdrawn for further consultations.

They said the Parliamentary Committee that considered the bill also recommended its withdrawal.

“As such, people are asking as to why the House moved on without taking into account the concerns of all key stakeholders? Therefore, we appeal to the conscience of the President not to sign the bill into law,” said the Church.

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