In this column, Bazzi wonders what insults qualify as Defaming the President, and wants to know when he’ll get arrested.
In the early evening hours of the 13 November, police raided the house of Chilufya Tayali, leader of the small - and frankly, insignificant - Economic Equity Party (EEP). Accused of Defaming the President, that Sunday evening he was bundled into a police van along with a reporter and cameraman on the scene and covering the incident.
Tayali has been arrested over defaming Hichilema before, most recently in April of this year. He has been a consistently outspoken critic of this regime in particular and HH’s politics in general. But, Defaming the President is not a law applied only to Tayali; since the UPND gained power last year, on average one person a month has been arrested for ‘committing’ this crime, most of them not high-profile politicians like those quick to visit Tayali in prison. These included Socialist Party leader Fred M’membe, who claimed Tayali was tortured by police officers; and PF leaders, who were evidently reminiscent of the days when they too could lock up outspoken critics. Others attending this requiem for the death of Zambia’s fragile democracy were concerned about Zambia’s ‘media rights’, decrying the unjustified arrest of the journalist and his cameraman.
Ostensibly Hichilema wishes to scrap the law, a part of His set of highly noble campaign promises, which I presume also includes flying on a rocket to space and ending poverty worldwide (who knows; who even reads political manifestos anyways?). However, at the same time, He has consistently and publicly committed to ‘upholding the law’, which conveniently includes ‘Defaming the President’. And thus, we are presented with some Orwellian double think: we must simultaneously believe that the ‘Defaming the President’ law is wrong, whilst agreeing that it must still be upheld. Purportedly, this double-think has a greater political logic to it: its primary purpose is for the state to wrest back control ‘the law’ from PF cadres, who in the previous regime would circumvent institutional channels to mete out their own forms of ‘justice’(read: political intimidation). But all this seems to have done is simply shift the policing of public discourse from coarse cadres to coarse police officer. Nowhere in this equation does the actual legitimacy of the law become a subject of discussion.
And so, one naturally wonders what ‘Defaming the President’ actually means - what are the proposed limits of the president’s monarchical sanctity, when does one ‘cross the line’? Thus, in the interests of public safety, statutory interpretation for posterity, and how best to speed up my imminent arrest, I have created a list of defaming-the-president scenarios. Will I get arrested if I:
i) fail to capitalise ‘his excellency’ in a diary entry?
ii) call the dear comrade head of state a charlatan and a fraud to Daisy, my dog?
iii) curse Him on a live Facebook stream, in ways I reserve almost-exclusively for drivers on our pot-holed roads?
iv) moon Him when the presidential motorcade drives past?
Perhaps the current crop of politicians already gets away with the above, although I’m still waiting for the day when Tayali & co to stand roadside, bend over, and moon the president. It must be said that whilst ‘upholding the law’ continues unabated, defamation continues unabashed. It seems like Defaming the President is the great coming-of-age of our period, the catcher in the rye for political upstarts. And Defaming the President is not only becoming more virulent, but is becoming more widespread, aided by the quick transfer of media via social network sites. Some see this as a tearing apart of the fabric of public discourse, sewn together by the promises of reasonable, rational debate. And I largely agree with the premises of such an argument. I just worry when reasonable debate take place without its opposite: unreasonable debate. Must every criticism be couched within the rules of ‘proper’ public discourse, laid down by the presidential authority, with the full force of the police and other state powers, at its side? What of satire? What of this column?