Lusaka — Zambian authorities should drop an investigation into newspaper columnist and academic Sishuwa Sishuwa, who is accused of sedition, and should reaffirm the right to media freedom ahead of the August 12 general elections, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.
Sishuwa, a lecturer at the University of Zambia, wrote an opinion article published on March 19 in the independent local newspaper News Diggers and republished three days later in South Africa's Mail & Guardian newspaper on the potential for unrest in Zambia after the elections, titled, "Zambia may burn after the August election." Sishuwa often contributes political commentary to Zambian and regional news outlets, according to a CPJ review of his work.
Zambia's ambassador to Ethiopia and permanent representative to the African Union, Emmanuel Mwamba, in an April 26 letter to the Inspector General of Police accused Sishuwa of sedition; the charge is now pending investigation, Mwamba told CPJ via messaging app and the news website Lusaka Times reported. A conviction on sedition carries a minimum sentence of seven years in jail, according to Zambia's criminal procedure code.
"Police should not waste taxpayers' money by entertaining a complaint of alleged sedition against columnist and academic Sishuwa Sishuwa, who was simply exercising his fundamental right to freedom of speech," said Angela Quintal, CPJ's Africa program coordinator, in New York. "Authorities must also guard against inadvertently opening the floodgates for those close to the ruling Patriotic Front who may want to weaponize colonial-era sedition laws ahead of the August general elections."
Mwamba initially responded to Sishuwa's article with a March 29 Facebook post in which he accused the columnist of "being a hired gun," calling the opinion piece an attempt to "scandalise Zambia, harm its reputation and impose a false and alarming international narrative."
Sishuwa then sued Mwamba, seeking unspecified damages for defamation and malicious falsehood in connection with the Facebook post, News Diggers reported April 21.
Mwamba retaliated by laying the sedition charge against Sishuwa with police, the Lusaka Times reported. Mwamba told CPJ via messaging app that as a former journalist himself, he supported "responsible expression" that "doesn't defame, is not seditious or [is not] writing that promotes incitement or hate speech."
Sishuwa told CPJ via messaging app that the matter should be seen as part of a broader attempt by the authorities to suppress criticism ahead of the elections. "By accusing me of sedition, the government wants to intimidate an independent voice, one of the few remaining, seen as having an international audience," he added.
Zambia Police deputy spokesperson Danny Mwale and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services did not respond to several CPJ requests for comment sent via phone and WhatsApp, while an email sent to an address provided on the government website bounced.