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Zambia: “King Cobra” Strikes

Zambia: “King Cobra” Strikes

Two years after Zambia’s President Sata – nicknamed King Cobra because of his combative political style – was elected with a promise to make the rule of law and justice the “cornerstone” of his tenure, concern is growing at his oppressive use of the law against independent media in the country. MLDI is supporting several cases in which journalists thought to be linked to a controversial independent news website are being prosecuted.

Last July, Zambian journalist Wilson Pondamali was arrested and charged with possessing military pamphlets. He was granted bail but the police continued to hold him and further accused him of damaging government property – the door handle of a police car – when, they say, he tried to jump out of the vehicle. After a stay in hospital suffering with pneumonia, during which he was handcuffed to his bed, his case was adjourned to the end of September.

A week before Pondamali’s arrest, two other journalists were detained – Thomas Zgambo and Clayson Hamasaka. They have been accused of various offences, the most serious being sedition, which carries a seven-year jail sentence; Hamasaka, who formerly taught journalism, has been questioned on the grounds of suspected sedition but has been charged with possession of indecent materials.

Equipment belonging to all three journalists, including laptops and mobile phones, was seized by the police.

MLDI believes the real reason these three journalists have been targeted is that they are thought to work for the independent news website Zambian Watchdog, which covers stories about alleged corruption and other matters embarrassing to the government. Since 2009 this website – motto: “We fear no one. We favour no one” – has operated from outside Zambia. It relies on anonymous contributors from inside Zambia to provide it with news and information and is often able to break stories critical of the regime that are not reported in Zambia itself. For this reason, it frequently suffers attacks and access to it is blocked inside Zambia.

MLDI is concerned that the refusal to grant Pondamali bail, despite an initial court order, was a particularly grave violation of his rights. To put pressure on the authorities, MLDI joined forces with the Southern African Litigation Center and petitioned the special rapporteurs on freedom of expression of the United Nations and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights for their urgent intervention to get him freed.

The petition says the likely link between the charges against him and his alleged connection with the website violates his right to free expression, as guaranteed under Zambia’s constitution as well as under international human rights treaties that have been signed by Zambia.

Update (4 October) charges against Zgambo have reportedly been dropped.

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