As Elections Approach, Zambia Sees Rising Social Media Hate Speech, Ethnic Tension

opposition UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema (in white shirt and folded sleeves), campaigning in Luwingu District of the Bemba-dominated Northern Province. Picture with permision of Zambian Watchdog.

Opposition UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema (in white shirt and folded sleeves), campaigning in Luwingu District of the Bemba-dominated Northern Province. Picture with permission of Zambian Watchdog.

Zambia will vote in a presidential election on 20 January, 2015 following the death in office of Zambia's fifth republican president, Michael Sata, in October of 2014. Guy Scott, a Zambian-born lawmaker of Scottish descent and Vice President under Sata, has served as acting president since Sata's death.

Zambia has over 70 languages and dialects and citizens have largely lived in peace with one another particularly in urban areas comprising the mining region of the Copperbelt, the capital city Lusaka, Livingstone and other areas where people from almost all ethnic groups have converged for work and other economic activities. Nevertheless, the run-up to the election has been marked by accusations of hate speech and tribalism both on and offline from opposing political parties.

Supporters of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), a party founded by Michael Sata in 2001 and members of his ethnic group, Bemba, now regularly trade insults with supporters of opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) on social media.

At a recent rally for ruling Patriotic Front candidate Edgar Lungu, one his supporters, Bishop Edward Chomba, accused opposition candidate Hakainde Hichilema of being a freemason and a satanist who eats babies and drinks human blood. The opposition leader has taken the matter to court.

On social media, Patriotic Front supporters have ridiculed the Tonga tribal group, to which Hichilema belongs. One Facebook user mocked the pastoral origins of the Tonga people, suggesting that if elected, Hilichema would change the Zambian flag by replacing Zambia's national symbol of an eagle with a cow.

Dipak Patel, campaign manager for the opposition UPND party, released a statement on December 22 expressing his disappointment with acting president Scott for allowing hate speech against Hichilema.

A netizen known as Pan Africanist reacted to the statement from Patel, who is a Zambian of Indian origin, saying:

I’m disappointed that Dipak [Patel] is a @#$%. Anyhow what can you expect with name like patel.

Comments of this nature have been hocked by both sides. Responding to an article about the Lusaka High Court's order that Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation to “adequately and fairly” cover UPND candidate campaigns,  one Anyoko said:

PF brough a muzungu [a whiteman] SCOT [the Acting President] and has brough confusions then UPND [the main opposition party] u are going to bed with a MWENYE DIPAK PATEL [UPND's campaign manager, who is of Indian descent], COME ON ZEDIANS WE can do it bey ourselves not these half baked zambians, can a zambian talk politics in INDIA let alone involved even in Scotland [the parents of the Acting President Guy Scott are from Scotland] ALA WAKE UP KUZIIMA

As these and many other online conversations show, the Internet has become a central conduit for ethnic prejudice and hate speech during election periods in Zambia. 

In 2012, then-Permanent secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services, Amos Malupenga, directed Zambia's Information Communication and Technology Authority (ZICTA) to develop a law that could punish Internet users for sending and posting messages deemed to be hate speech. But as of December of 2014, there is no law that specifically curbs hate speech online in Zambia.

International human rights doctrine does, however, address the issue. Article 20.2 of the International Covenant on Political and Civil Rights states that “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

Human rights advocate Rueben Lifuka observed the trend in a post on his Facebook page:

This electoral campaign period has brought out some sad realities about us as people. Today, we find it easy to join in the fun when politicians we do not support are ridiculed, falsely accused, insulted and humiliated. We happily make comments in full support of such odious statements. We are happy that such statements lower the standing of the opponents of our preferred candidate in the eyes of the public.

Apart from insulting each other’s ethnicities, social media has also been used to threaten journalists and others with different political opinions. Among those who have been threatened with death include US-based media practitioner Field Ruwe and this writer.

Noting an increase in hate speech among Zambian social media users, an international media non-governmental organization operating in Zambia and the Southern African sub-region, the Panos Institute in Southern Africa (PSAf), called on netizens to avoid the practice. Lilian Kiefer, PSaF Executive Director, said in a statement:

PSAf believes that communication has the power to influence the direction of any society or country, whether positively or negatively. One positive word on social media can help people see Zambia’s potential and encourage them to play their role in building the nation. In the same way, one negative word can cause anarchy, confusion and disturb the country’s peace. One reckless utterance on social media can set people against each other, fueling unnecessary conflict in the country. Each one of us can make a choice to use responsible language on social media and promote constructive, issue based debate…. [B]ullying, insulting and threatening each other on social media is an affront to democracy, especially as the country is celebrating 50 years of Independence.

Although well-intended, Kiefer's statement fails to encourage the kind of constructive criticism that is vital to a strong democracy. And it raises difficult questions for legislators, who must uphold protections for free expression while also working to ensure that online speech does not incite ethnic violence or expressions of hatred. In the digital age, and particularly in an election season, this is no small task.

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