Kitwe, Zambia - The arrest of Father Francis Bwalya, a Roman Catholic Priest in the usually quite town of Kitwe, in Zambia has raised serious concerns about citizens' right to free expression in that country, and is a source of simmering tension in the town.
The arrest followed a call Fr. Francis and his NGO had made to the youth to rise and fight against injustice in their communities, last Friday at a national youth celebration day in Zambia.
Fr. Frank, as he is popularly known, is reported to have distributed information, which authorities say amount to inciting the youth to violence, in a "Red Card Campaign" his newly established organisation is prosecuting. The "Red Card" campaign identifies instances of injustice and denounces them. It calls on citizens to stand up for their rights. Fr. Frank's campaign has caught on with the communities in which he works, and it's creating sleeplessness for the government and authorities in Kitwe.
Fr. Frank, who was in Accra in September 2009 to attend the second module of a Publish What You Pay Norway capacity building programme on oil and gas sector governance is not new to official harassment. He once worked as a journalist and station manager of a community radio owned by the Catholic Church, but had to step down when intense political pressure was brought to bear on his supervising bishop to fire him.
Information available to Public Agenda suggest that, the bishop himself has been asked to step down, in what appears to be a distancing of the Church from the actions and decision of the bishop, even though 'early retirement' has officially been cited for his removal.
Commenting on the arrest during a Church service held in Lusaka's Matero Constituency at Bible Gospel Church in Africa (BIGOCA) on Sunday, the Zambian President Rupiah Banda is reported by the Times of Zambia to have said he was disappointed with the un-Christian behaviour of Father Frank Bwalya.
Mr Banda, according to the Times of Zambia, said Father Bwalya was a Christian and that it was disappointing to hear him incite and advocate violence in the country instead of preaching peace and unity.
Mr Banda has declared that he would not allow hatred to become part of his regime because as a leader he had a duty to ensure that every Zambian was protected.
"I don't hate Fr. Bwalya, I hate his behaviour, in fact I am disappointed with him, why should a Christian call for people to die if Government did not listen to their cries, that is advocating for violence, Christians should not advocate for death but promote peace," the president said.
Further information reaching Public Agenda just before press time is that Fr. Frank has been released on bail, after pleading 'not guilty' to a charge of 'exhibiting a conduct likely to cause the breach of peace'. The Kitwe senior magistrate Mercy Makubale has set March 31, 2010 as the date for the commencement of trial. Copperbelt police commanding officer Antoneil Mutentwa said Fr Bwalya was arrested while distributing 'red cards' for the red card campaign at the venue of Youth Day celebrations.
Organisations and groups supporting Fr. Frank, including Caritas, Transparency International Zambia, Citizens Forum, Change Life Zambia, SACCORD, National Youth anti-corruption movement, Civil Society for Poverty Reduction and Zambia Youth Association in the Fight Against Corruption are saying the government has clearly embarrassed itself and is seeking cover by proffering charges, which in their view will not hold.
The incident has grabbed the attention of both local and international media, with Fr. Frank speaking with both BBC and Voice of America on Tuesday.