Zambia Preaches Media Freedom, But Doesn’t Practice

It is deeply fascinating to see how often the new Patriotic Front government of Zambia likes to talk about freedom of the press and freedom of expression, when in fact the state of the country’s media has gotten deplorably worse since the new government took power.

Take just this one example – the lede from an article published in the state-owned propaganda outlet Daily Mail today:  “The media in Zambia is so free that journalists such as former MMD propagandist Chanda Chimba, who wantonly violated basic media principles and ethics, can freely move around the country without fear, said Minister of Information, Broadcasting and Labour Fackson Shamenda yesterday.

The article goes on to report on the government’s commemoration of World Press Freedom Day, and the passage of a new law on Freedom of Information.  But right there in the opening sentence, you can see just how bad things have gotten:  1) they needlessly defame with Mr. Chimba (“wanton violation”), 2) they ask to be congratulated for not throwing journalists in jail (shouldn’t we expect them to observe the law?), and 3) the journalists and editors writing this article are EMPLOYED BY THE STATE and dependent on producing favorable coverage to maintain their livelihood.

New laws regarding freedom of information are entirely useless in a country where self-censorship has reached such heights that editors are even ratting out their own reporters, handing over draft stories to the very subjects whom they are investigating.  Take for instance President Michael Sata’s forced retirement of a slew of young journalists from the state-owned Times of Zambia, simply because they doubted whether they held sufficient political allegiance to the PF.

As we reported here on Zambia Reports, “Bob Sianjalika, Patson Phiri, Abel Mboozi, Richard Mulonga, Obert Simwanza and Whitney Mulobela are being retired for political reasons and this is why management at Times has no grounds to dismiss them over such an absurd decision. They have all been accused of allegedly being connected to UPND and the MMD – in other words, for the first time in history, the government is “cleaning house” to purge any member of the state media that is not an avowed member of their party.”

This is uncharted territory – no other previous administration had fired journalists from the state media outlets because of their political affiliations.  Yes, indeed the coverage produced by outlets like the Daily Mail, for example, were exuberantly pro-MMD during the last government, but this crackdown on freedom of opinion has never been seen before.

According to one journalist we interviewed, “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.

The whole problem of media freedom in Zambia goes back to the “deal with the devil” made by Michael Sata with Fred M’Membe the businessman and owner/editor-in-chief of The Post.  In the lead up to the election, The Post did everything possible to make sure that Sata would win – they published glowing profile features, salacious – if poorly evidenced – accounts of alleged corruption among his opponents – and regularly spun the news into a story that the PF would save Zambia from the brink of disaster.

And what did The Post get in return for having placed Mr. Sata in State House?  At least a dozen Post journalists took jobs with the new government, creating an incestuous and damaging overlap between the supposed guardians in the press and their overlords in the Ministry of Information.  Secondly, there is the scandal of the 14 billion kwacha loan that Mr. M’Membe and the Director of Public Prosecutions Mutembo Nchito owed to the Development Bank of Zambia.  Just this week, Sata suspended three judges who had passed down a decision requiring them to pay this debt.

Could there be anything more outrageous than the president actually firing judges that attempted to enforce the law against both a member of his government and his main ally in media?  What do we think will happen the next time a judge or officer of the court sits before a case involving the Post?  The message has been sent:  they are untouchable.

Meanwhile, the efforts to censor other independent media are intensifying.  The editors of the Daily Nation, a new small circulation newspaper, are under regular threat of lawsuit and investigation.  The sterling and respected Zambian Watchdog (which by definition has limited reach in poorly connected Zambia) has complained of hacker attacks on their website, alleged to have originated from the PF’s friends in China.  We hear rumors that the host of one international radio programme known for its cutting edge reporting has received police visits to the family home for no reason.  The list of subtle harassment goes on and on.

So when we hear Information Minister Fackson Shamenda (Minister of Propaganda) waxing poetic about how free and fair the media has become under his watch, the fact is that Mr. Shamenda has a gun to the head of nearly every journalist in the country.  You can preach freedom of the press all you want – but how about we try practicing it?

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