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Freeing up expression: colonial defamation laws

Posted on 29/08/2019
By Commonwealth Foundation

In 2014 the Foundation funded a three-year PEN International project in collaboration with PEN national centres in five Commonwealth African countries.

The project supported the PEN network to advocate for the reform of legislation governing freedom of expression and information.

At the start of the project, members from each of the five African PEN Centres (Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia) were taught how to train others to advocate. The capacity of PEN centres was also strengthened to engage with international organisations and processes to help further the cause, including the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) and Sustainable Development Goal processes.

Leo Kiss, the Foundation’s Communications Officer, interviewed Daniel Sikazwe of PEN Zambia, the centre’s Secretary, to understand if the project’s objectives are still being advanced in 2019.

Who makes up PEN Zambia?

Daniel: We are made up of a whole spectrum of writers, including journalists and quite a large population of school-age young people. We work with young women and men to develop their writing, language, and citizenship, because writing—in our view—must promote citizenship.

What was the project supported by the Commonwealth Foundation attempting to do?

Daniel: One of the things this project sought to do was challenge and repeal colonial defamation laws that stifle free speech. Historically, defamation laws were a protective mechanism for British officials to stifle dissent amongst African freedom fighters and advocates, but these laws are still being used.

‘The project aimed to get journalists to appreciate how these laws impact them […] so they are aware and more likely to publish stories on the issues’

People must be able to question the democratic system. The law of defamation shouldn’t be criminal; it should be civil. We are also involved in a coalition campaigning for Freedom of Information legislation.

What methodologies did the project employ?  Did you use print media and radio to help further your advocacy?

Daniel: We are journalists, and so we used our connections in the media to build a coalition between media organisations who were aware of the need for Freedom of Information legislation. This included the Livingstone Press Club, which is a group of 15 media organisations. As a result, we had a lot of press and TV coverage on the need to reform the defamation laws.

We also established a radio programme, the Writer’s Circle. We use that platform to discuss literature, culture, rights: whatever topic is to do with writers and their freedom, and sometimes just to feature writers and discuss their work.

The project aimed to get journalists to appreciate how these laws impact them. Our study looked at how journalists are exercising self-censorship. If we have a topic that we want to be understood more widely among journalists, we do a briefing on the Writers Circle so they are aware and more likely to publish stories on the issues.

The secretariat of PEN Zambia left to right: Marita Banda (Project Coordinator), Daniel Sikazwe (Secretary), and Nicholas Kawinga (President)

How did global and regional advocacy add value to efforts at the national level?

Daniel: As a result of the project, PEN International passed a resolution to address the decriminalisation of defamation. PEN Zambia also engaged with the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Information and Access to Information at the African Union and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in Geneva, so that they would raise the issue with the Zambian government.

How effective was the direct engagement with Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression in Geneva?

Daniel: PEN Zambia and PEN International presented a shadow report to the Human Rights Commission a month before the Government of Zambia was due to appear before it. The report talked about the fact that more needs to be done to repeal the laws that criminalise freedom of expression. As a result, the government was asked to consider appropriate legal reform measures over a period of four years.

‘When musicians sing, politicians may ignore the word at first, but they can’t ignore the sounds. One way or another: they will hear.’

Additionally, we are using case studies from other African countries to demonstrate to government what laws and progress is being made with regard to freedom of expression elsewhere in the region.

How can creative expression influence dialogue and decision-making about policy issues?

Daniel: Performance art is key to this. When musicians sing, politicians may ignore the word at first, but they can’t ignore the sounds. One way or another: they will hear.

Eventually it might affect changes in policy but immediately it means that other voices are being heard. Someone speaking out creatively—through poetry, song, or theatre—is an opportunity for conversation.

When you put something on paper, very few people will read. But where there is a play or concert, people will come. Also, politicians feel less threatened by performative arts compared to hard copies of the written word.

How has this project changed your relationship with government?

Daniel: The project has helped to open up avenues for dialogue with government. We have an open invitation to meet with the Minister of Justice and to help the government implement the African Peer Review Mechanism’s recommendations when the process begins in the next couple of years. We have also recently received invitations to meet with the European Union office in Zambia to discuss freedom of expression advocacy.

What is the situation now with the repeal of criminal defamation laws and freedom of expression?

Daniel: The most visible aspect is that there are more media and freedom of expression groups now raising the issues we have been advocating for. Another step forward is that the Government of Zambia announced in March 2019 that they will table an access to information bill in parliament. There are conversations about constitutional amendments and we see this as an opportunity to press the parliamentary committee which is receiving submissions on the constitution. We will be ready to present our thoughts on freedom of expression and defamation laws in Zambia.

Daniel Sikazwe is the Secretary of PEN Zambia.


Strengthening the PEN Africa network for civil society engagement

The pen and the written word are powerful tools for upholding free expression, cultural rights and democratic governance. Through creative expression, Commonwealth citizens have the ability to advocate for the legislation that underpins these rights.