Zambia is the latest African state trying to muzzle social media with arbitrary laws

A spreading blackout.
A spreading blackout.
Image: Reuters
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Social media should have brought more freedom of speech to Africans, but governments seem bent on gagging online expression.

First Tanzania forced bloggers to pay $900 a year, then Uganda imposed a tax on social media use. Cameroon regularly blacks out the internet to suppress dissent in its anglophone region. Now Zambia’s government plans to enforce new rules to regulate social media use in the country where observers are increasingly concerned about Zambians’ shrinking freedoms.

Zambia plans to introduce stricter regulations for social media usage, communications minister Brian Mushimba told parliament on Thursday July 5. The new regulations are aimed fighting cyber crime and reduce online pornography, he said according to an AFP report.

“It is evident that social media in Zambia has become a catalyst for the detachment of members of the Zambian society from our cultural norms,” Mushimba told parliament. “Prior to the proliferation of social media, people in Zambia behaved and communicated within acceptable and expected cultural boundaries.”

It is unclear, however, whether a new set of laws will be drafted. Mushimba said Zambia already had adequate laws to police online behavior, according to a report in the Lusaka Times. Instead, his department would focus on sensitizing Zambians about responsible use of social media, but would not hesitate to prosecute perceived misuse.

Yet in January, Mushimba said he’d planned to introduce three new bills that would lead to the “productive use of internet and social media,” also according to Lusaka Times report. The bills dealt with cyber security and cyber crime, e-commerce and data protection. A similar bouquet of bills has been used in other African states to black out the internet, so Zambians tweeting with the hashtag #OpenSpaceZM have reason to be concerned.

This week, Mushimba assured Zambians that the country would not be following Uganda’s example. The Zambian government had no plans to introduce a levy on social media because the country already has enough laws to protect Zambians, he said. New policies would not infringe on Zambians’ rights, Mushimba added. The lack of clarity around the new regulations means the process could be drawn out or become obfuscated, making it difficult for Zambians to respond.

While the discussion took place in a parliamentary debate, there is still concern that Zambia’s space for public discourse is shrinking. In the current political climate, opposition politicians were arrested and harassed under arbitrary laws and critical newspapers have been silenced using the tax system. If Zambia clamps down on social media and curtails citizens’ freedom of speech, it will probably be completely legal.