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    Zambian activist has charges of defaming ex-president withdrawn

    January 27, 2022

    Edgar Lungu: No longer in power
    Image: Zambian parliament

    A ZAMBIAN youth activist who was accused of defaming Edgar Lungu when he was president in November 2020 has had the charge dropped by the prosecution.

    Lawrence Kasonde was arrested for posting a video on a Patriotic Front (PF) WhatsApp group that allegedly defamed Lungu, according to the police.

    Lungu lost the presidential election in August 2021 to perennial opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema.

    Last week, in the Kitwe Subordinate Court a State Prosecutor applied for Kasonde to be discharged.

    Before the prosecution’s decision to withdraw the case, the trial had been postponed no less than eight times, either because the magistrate or State witnesses were unavailable.

    “Whilst we welcome the prosecution’s decision to withdraw the charges against Mr Kasonde, this decision comes a year too late,” said Anneke Meerkotter from the Southern Africa Litigation Centre (SALC), which had an interest in the case

    “In the process, Mr Kasonde has suffered irreparable harm.”

    She added: “The charge of defamation of the president is frequently used to stifle dissent in Zambia.

    “Often, charges are brought in subordinate courts far from Lusaka where there is little to no press coverage and where the accused’s fair trial rights are often ignored.

    “The result is that anyone charged with expression-related offences often spends up to two years navigating the criminal justice system, at great financial, personal and reputational cost.”

    Meerkotter continued: “Since the current president of Zambia has himself frequently been harassed under similar free speech-related offences, we trust that the State will urgently review the Penal Code and repeal those offences which violate the right to freedom of expression.

    “We also urge the State to take steps to end the ongoing prosecution of the many other activists who face similar charges.”

    Kasonde was charged under Section 69 of the Penal Code that was added to the Act following an amendment in1965, which was adopted by the parliament soon after independence from Britain.

    Section 69 of the Penal Code provides: “any person who, with intent to bring the President into hatred, ridicule or contempt, publishes any defamatory or insulting matter, whether by writing, print, word of mouth or in any other manner, is guilty of an offence and is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a period not exceeding three years.”

    Defences such as truth, good faith and public interest are not explicitly provided for in Section 69, legal experts point out.

    The Supreme Court has, however, in the past noted that legitimate criticism could be a defence.

    In calling for the repeal of the Act, the SALC said that this was inimical to the democratic process.   

    “Heads of state are elected to the position on a periodical basis in democratic countries [and] for the elections to be free and fair, it also requires that people can effectively criticise the incumbent president’s actions,” the SALC noted.

    “The offence cannot accordingly be justifiable in modern democracies.

    “For this reason, many countries have taken steps to repeal similar offences or to at least limit prosecution to cases of severe insult, which require the permission of the Director of Public Prosecution to institute,” the SALC added.

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