Civil society fears that the imminent introduction of legislation aimed at regulating non-governmental organisations (NGOs) will severely compromise their work and independence, and could even result in their operations being closed down.
The NGOs bill, introduced this week in parliament by justice minister George Kunda, calls for "the registration and co-ordination of NGOs - [and] to regulate the work, and the area of work of NGOs operating in Zambia".
If the bill becomes law it would empower the interior minister to form a 10-member board, comprised of government members and two representatives from civil society, which would "receive, discuss and approve the code of conduct [of NGOs], and ... provide policy guidelines to NGOs for harmonising their activities to the national development plan of Zambia".
Civil society leaders and human rights activists told IRIN the new law was a ploy by government to silence their critics and erode the role of civil society.
"We believe that this is a very sad moment in the life of Zambia's civil society. The bill is dictatorial and seeks to constrain and limit the space for civil society in the country," said Lee Habasonda, executive director of the Southern African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes [SACCORD], a human rights and good governance watchdog.
"This sends very wrong signals and threatens the existence of NGOs, in that if the board is to be directly under the Minister of Home Affairs, then it means this same board will be de-registering, at will, any NGO whose style the government does not like."
NGOs are registered by the Registrar of Societies, a quasi-government organisation, but after registration the government has little power to restrain NGOs from voicing political dissent, and any attempt to de-register an NGO usually involves long court battles. In the proposed bill, NGOs will be obliged to register annually.
SACCORD was de-registered by the government last year, only to have its NGO status reinstated by the court. It is once more embroiled in a legal battle after the government deregistered it again this year, but this time the court has allowed it to retain its NGO status until the outcome of the legal action.
"They [government] have been failing to put an end to our activism or existence, because there was no legal basis for de-registering us for holding dissenting views [from the government]," Habasonda said.
"This bill reduces the right to freedom of expression and the right to freedom of association; it reduces the efficacy of NGOs, because if they can't effectively criticise the state, then it means democracy is losing ground and dictatorship is now creeping in."
This is the first attempt by the Zambian government to regulate civil society since the onset of multiparty democracy 16 years ago, when Kenneth Kaunda, president since Zambia's independence from Britain in 1964, was unseated in 1991 by former trade unionist Frederick Chiluba.
Zambian civil society has been a strong force for change: it was pivotal in forcing Kaunda to abandon one-party rule and adopt multiparty democracy; helped block Chiluba's bid for a third term of office in 2001; and, during the tenure of current president Levy Mwanawasa, has maintained pressure for the adoption of a new constitution.
Emily Sikazwe, director of the Non-Governmental Organisation Coordinating Committee [NGOCC], an umbrella body for civic organisations involved in gender issues, said the proposed legislation would negatively affect the rights of women and children.
"The immediate impact is that the women's movement, and NGOs who have championed the cause of women and children - where the government has not been faring well - will certainly be de-registered," Sikazwe told IRIN.
"We know for a fact who they are targeting with this new legislation, but we reject it with the contempt it deserves. Democracy has come to stay in Zambia, and we won't allow anyone to sit on critical issues that are important to the country."
Matyola Malawo, executive secretary of the Zambia Council for Social Development, a coalition of NGOs working for upliftment, said the bill was not good for the country because "it doesn't seek to harmonise the contributions of NGOs to national development."
He added that "NGOs were not consulted in its formation and, when we tried to access it, we were all told that parliament would decide on behalf of the people. If this law goes through, there will be a lot of mismanagement of public funds, because no one will speak for fear of being de-registered."
Chief government spokesperson and information minister Mike Mulongoti said the bill was designed to make civil society more responsible and accountable in their conduct. "We have democracy to safeguard. We must all stand on one platform - NGOs should not just be asking government to be transparent or accountable to the people, they should also do the same.
"This is why we have decided, as government, to introduce this new law: it's necessary to have a legal framework to regulate their conduct, because some of them seem to have been set up specifically to oppose the government in everything," he commented.
"They [NGOs] want to have a free-for-all atmosphere, when they themselves want government to be accountable. We must stand on the same platform: they should also be held accountable for their conduct and expenditure. After all, even the money they use to fund their activities is taxpayers' money elsewhere, just like we use Zambian taxpayers' money."
Zambian NGOs are not funded by the government but source their funding from mainly Western donors.