On my recent trip to Zambia, I met up with a local journalist and we got talking on a number of issues and how the media landscape is looking from the time the Patriotic Front government assumed office last September.
Being a foreigner, whenever I scoured the Internet, the impression one gets from government officials that have cared to talk about media operations in the country is that Zambia is now a heaven for journalists to work in. Well, my brief interaction with the journalist changed my perception altogether.
Zambian journalists are going through a very tormenting period that has been anchored on distrust with their compromised superiors and backstabbing amongst themselves in newsrooms.
“It’s worse than before,” remarked the journalist, “we can’t trust ourselves as friends in these newsrooms; not even our bosses.” This struck me as a curious observation, so I asked him why.
“The biggest problem that’s there is everyone wants to impress the government so that they can be given better jobs and that means only positive stories about the government,” he said. “Worse still, it’s like there are professional journalists who have turned into government spies. They report on all their friends working on potential government exposes.”
For a moment, I thought this guy was just kidding but reading his face, he was dead serious. He was to tell me a story of his workmate who had an altercation with his bosses after they broke the confidentiality he had entrusted in them over the years to a news source.
The journalist had been planning to write a story that, apparently, implicated State House staff. And as per newsroom norm, debriefing his bosses on the progress of the story was a requirement.
Ignorant that his bosses were actually reporting all the debriefs to State House (the same people the journalist was investigating!), the journalist was shocked when he got a call from one of the people the story was implicating. As you can guess, there were no pleasantries exchanged during the telephone conversation with the State House caller. The journalist was instead lambasted and threatened with unspecified action. The State House caller told the journalist to drop that story completely because his bosses had also already debriefed State House on what that particular journalist was working on!
Shell-shocked and deflated, the journalist went back to his bosses and told them about the tongue-lash he received from State House. He was disappointed in them that his well-intentioned debriefs were actually being reported back to the very people he was investigating! In the end, as you may guess, the story died before it even could be hatched.
The journalist continued: “We are living in fear because we don’t know whether to continue debriefing our bosses who in return report us to our government sources. What we’ve now resorted to is self censorship; we kill these stories the moment we realize they implicate government officials.”
Cases like these and many others, which are creating a hostile atmosphere for Zambian journalists to thrive, are increasing.
First, just recently, the permanent secretary in the ministry of information and tourism Amos Malupenga (himself a former employee of The Post newspaper, Zambia’s biggest daily newspaper) threatened to impose a dress code for journalists covering State House events. He threatened to bar journalists from covering State House because according to him, their dress code did not befit covering such an important institution. Malupenga was bemused that some journalists turned up in skimpy dresses and jeans that he dimmed undesirable to be worn by people covering State House events. He wasted no time in calling a meeting with media heads to express his unhappiness at how their journalists were dressed. What he perhaps forgot to remember though is that instead of threatening to the innocent journalists, the problem of them not being able to afford suits or look presentable was beyond them—it had everything to do with their remuneration. Instead of such threats, as observed by the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA)-Zambia chapter board member Nalumino Nalumino, Malupenga would have done well by addressing the poor salaries and conditions of service by these journalists.
Malupenga may not have acted from without because last December, when president Michael Sata was swearing in the new attorney general Mumba Malila, he instructed him to take an inventory of all online publications and their owners. He accused the opposition United Party for National Development of being behind some online publications that reported he, Sata, was once sick amid speculation that he had died.
“So, I am not asking for a witch-hunt, but you as Attorney-General, let us enforce the laws of this country because all these internets are all orchestrated by the UPND,” Sata said.
Second, only two weeks ago permanent secretary in charge of administration at Cabinet Office, Anne Sinyangwe argued with journalists after she proposed that all media houses be getting news through a government-owned and state controlled public relations wing instead sending journalists to State House because the State House swearing-in room was getting congested.
Sinyangwe said it did not look nice that journalists congested the place during events such as swearing-in ceremonies.
But when challenged that her proposal was practically impossible since the media houses operated independently and had different editorial policies from the Zambia News and Information Service (ZANIS), Sinyagwe maintained that she would regulate State House coverage.
When challenged further that the best option was to look for a bigger room, Sinyangwe insisted on all journalists getting news through ZANIS.
“It doesn’t look nice for us to be congested; let’s have perhaps a way of getting news or information from here through ZANIS so that we work. And also find a way of alternating; some people will come for this the other people… I mean, it’s a small room. So, we must look organised ourselves, because if we are…we are supposed to be, yes, reporters but you see the way we stand we can’t even see. I don’t know how we are gathering this information nicely because sometimes if you are a camera person and then you are too many, you tend to take even wrong pictures,” Sinyangwe said as she received interjections of disapproval from journalists.
When told that her proposal was impossible to implement, Sinyangwe responded: It’s possible. ZANIS is a PR wing of the government we may choose to even say let’s…”
When reminded that journalists were not there to do public relations for the government, Sinyangwe just skirted around words as journalists became more incensed by her proposal.
“As it is being disseminated, there’re many ways of doing that,” she said.
“There’re news agencies, we do get information from news agencies. What we are saying is let the Zambia Information and News…”
Maybe Sinyangwe forgot that from the time State House was constructed, it has always accommodated multitudes of journalists and subjecting reporters to getting information from ZANIS, a public relations wing of the government, was not workable.
Again, it had to take the minister of information Fackson Shamenda to come to the defence of journalists by stating that no one would be barred from covering State House.
Third, the “retirement” of six journalists from the state-owned Times of Zambia newspaper, has left many people questioning the PF’s policy towards the media.
No reason has been given for retiring Bob Sianjalika, Whytney Mulobela, Obert Simwanza, Richard Mulonga, Patson Phiri and Abel Mbozi who are in their 30s—before reaching the statutory retirement age of 65.
But word around the street is that the six have been ‘fired’ because there’s currently a campaign to clean newsrooms of all “MMD remnants” while others believe that the dismissals were instigated by Malupenga, who after a meeting with media heads of all government-owned media outlets asked for lists of journalists that are believed to be members of the former ruling party, MMD. Today, journalists from other government media institutions such as Daily Mail newspaper and the national broadcaster ZNBC are living in fear because they may be the next victims.
Even if some of these journalists were members of the MMD or privately sympathized with the opposition, they have a right of assembly or association that is even recognized under the Zambian constitution, just like many of them were known members of the PF, when the current government was in the opposition. The difference, though, is that there was never a clean-up of “PF remnants” in newsrooms despite many of them being well known members of the party.
Not so surprising, the country’s media associations or unions, who were known to unite and were very critical under the MMD rule have become toothless bulldogs.
They have not said a thing about this media crackdown because they, too, are looking for government appointments or have already been appointed after lobbying for their newfound jobs.
But it would surely be asking for too much from a media boss to defend his juniors when seven months ago, he was moving in taxis and foot but after getting a government job, has now been given a hefty salary, drives a company Jeep Cherokee on the state’s fuel expense and school fees for his children paid for!
So it appears the onslaught on Zambian journalists will go on as media commentators that were previously critical of past governments have now been appeased and are now being paid to look the other way on matters they have been known to loathe in the past.
The ones who will suffer from all this is are Zambian citizens, who will have less quality information about how public affairs are handled (or mishandled), creating a deficit of public trust in the media to serve as a guardian of their interests, while public officials will swell with a renewed sense of impunity. All we can count on is for some brave writers and editors to step forward with courage to publish without fear, and hope that the people will not tolerate any attempt to punish them for it.