Editor's Comment

Public Order Act reforms overdue

Given Lubinda.

THE Public Order Act has been a source of political differences and contention in the country for decades.
Some stakeholders such as opposition political parties and human rights groups have contended that the piece of legislation which was enacted in 1955 is vague and has therefore been used by custodians to limit rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
While the Public Order Act covers a wide range of areas relating to public conduct, the most contested is regulation of assemblies, public meetings and processions.
Section 5(4) of the Act states that: “Every person who intends to assemble or convene a public meeting, procession or demonstration shall give police at least seven days’ notice of that person’s intention to assemble or convene such a meeting, procession or demonstration.”
Subsection 5 further states that: “The notice required under subsection (4) shall be in the prescribed form and shall contain an undertaking by the persons intending to assemble or convene a public meeting, procession or demonstration that order and peace shall be maintained through the observance of the following conditions:
(a) that they have been informed by the Police that the site for the meeting has not already been granted to another convener for the holding of a public meeting, procession or demonstration;
(b) that the route and the width of the route is suitable for the holding of processions in accordance with the width and route specifications for such purposes as specified by the Minister by statutory order;
(c) that marshals of a number sufficient to monitor the public meeting, procession or demonstration are available and shall co-operate with the police to ensure peace and order;
(d) that the commencement, duration and destination of the public meeting, procession or demonstration shall be notified to the police;
(e) that the public meeting, procession or demonstration shall not create a risk to security or public safety, a breach of the peace or disaffection amongst the inhabitants of that neighbourhood; and
(f) that the conveners of the meeting, procession or demonstration have been assured by the police that at the time the proposed activity shall be held it will be possible for it to be adequately policed.
However, some stakeholders have been discontented with the provisions of the Public Order Act thereby calling for reforms.
While stakeholders have been raising these concerns for decades and to various administrations, it is under the Patriotic government that an assurance has been given.
In 2016, the government under the leadership of President Edgar Lungu committed to amend the Public Order Act to meet the aspirations of all stakeholders.
This is certainly evidence that President Lungu respects people’s freedoms and will not allow anything to take away from the country’s young and flourishing democracy.
The current lamentations about the Public Order Act can dent the country’s democracy.
This is why we support the President’s directive to the Ministry of Justice to expedite the process of reforming the Public Order Act to promote and protect freedoms of assembly, association and expression.
“It is no doubt that the process of reforming the Public Order Act has been on the drawing board for far too long and I expect this process to be brought to its logical conclusion within the shortest possible time,” President Lungu said.
Certainly, the Public Order Act reforms are long overdue.
In October, Minister of Justice Given Lubinda told Parliament that the ministry was scheduled to start consultative meetings on the amendment of the Public Order Act in all the 10 provinces that same month.
It is therefore hoped that these consultative meetings are ongoing and progressing well.
As the team constituted to lead consultative meetings goes round the provinces, we expect all stakeholders to be generous with submissions.
Various stakeholders, including general citizens, should not shy away but come forth and make submissions on what should be removed or included in the Public Order Act.
In making submissions, stakeholders must bear in mind the need to have a balance between promoting and protecting the right to freedoms of assembly, association and expression and maintaining law and order.
In political rallies, we have in the past witnessed situations where freedom of assembly and expression has degenerated into lawlessness.
This is what the Public Order Act should always seek to guard against.
It is therefore hoped that all stakeholders will work together to come up with a Public Order Act which will meet the aspirations of all Zambians and enhance our democracy.
Most importantly, the PF will do well to deliver an amended Public Order Act before the 2021 general elections to avoid misgivings and lamentations of an unlevelled playing field.

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