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Zambian journalists arrested, likely to be charged with defaming president

Two journalists, Clayson Hamasaka and Thomas Zgambo, are likely to be charged with defaming Zambian president Michael Sata.

The pair has been in separate police confinement since the early hours of 9 July 2013 after a raid on their houses, which also resulted in the confiscation of personal computers and other digital equipment. They are suspected of running or being part of the Zambian Watchdog, an online website that largely provides news services on Zambia.

The website is seen as critical of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), and has come under a series of verbal attacks from party sympathisers of late. The website has also reported suspected denial of service attempts in recent weeks.

A news report broadcast on the state-run Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) Wednesday afternoon (13:15hrs CAT) said that the journalists were being held by police in connection with defaming the president. No formal charges have been laid against them as yet.

If the charge is brought forward, it will most likely be under Section 69 of the Penal Code, which is vague on what constitutes a defamatory offence. Zambian law criminalises defamation of a sitting president. The maximum penalty under the law is three (3) years and there's also a provision for fine.

The Zambia Chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA-Zambia) has condemned the arrest of the journalists and has called for their immediate release from police custody.

In a statement released on Tuesday, 9 July 2013, MISA-Zambia said the detention of the pair was a violation of their rights. “This act is a clear abuse of the rights of the two journalists. According to Zambian law, a person should be arrested, formally charged and then taken to a competent court of law, but this was not the case for the two,” the statement said.

Other civil society organisations in Zambia have also called for the release of the journalists.

MISA's Programme Specialist for Media Freedom Monitoring & Research, Levi Kabwato, has described recent developments in Zambia as 'deeply worrying'.

“Through our monitoring work, we have recorded a significant number of media freedom violations in Zambia and we have also noted that democratic culture and practice in the country is under strain. This concerns us very much and is deeply worrying,” Kabwato said.

“We are particularly concerned about the threats to freedom of expression in Zambia, including free expression in cyberspace and we strongly urge the government of Zambia not to set a very bad precedent in light of these developments,” he added.

At the end of Tuesday, both Hamasaka and Zgambo showed no signs of being beaten or physically tortured although they appeared deeply distressed. If they are not released today (Wednesday), both will be spending their second night in police confinement.

MISA continues to monitor the situation and more details will follow.

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