Patriotic Front Heads Toward Confrontation with Online Media

The ruling Patriotic Front party has increased its public criticism in recent months of online news media, arguing that a number of popular websites have been publishing false information and allegedly slanderous material regarding state officials.

The pressure culminated earlier this week when the Minister of Defence Godfrey Bwalya Mwamba (popularly known as GBM, who is a nephew of President Michael Sata) threatened a seven-day ultimatum against the government-critical website Zambian Watchdog, demanding retraction of an article, or else he would order police to act to shut down the website.

Today the tension increased, as the editors of the website responded with a strongly worded refusal to the request of the defence minister.  “What we wrote is true, accurate and precise. It was nothing but the truth; the whole truth,” the statement reads.

In interview with the Daily Mail yesterday, Defence Minister Mwamba said that it is only a matter of time before the government moves in on online publications.

“For instance, I spent more than 50,000 British pounds to fly my children, grandchildren, wife and other relatives to witness my son Muma’s graduation here,” Mwamba said in the Daily Mail interview, referring to his son’s graduation from Manchester University.  “But what was reported was that myself and Honourable Chikwanda were visiting our President in hospital. This is wrong and heightens our desire to fairly and squarely deal with the purveyors of falsehoods using all the legal means available. To us, money is not an issue here.”

Only a few days earlier another senior PF member, Wynter Kabimba, also publicly criticized online media outlets for allegedly insulting religious and tribal figures, and promised swift action on behalf of the ruling party.

Some media observers we spoke with said that these exchanges have put the PF on a collision course with online media – and it’s not clear who will come out on the other side.

The tensions between the ruling party and critical journalists started much earlier.  The threats to shut down websites were preceded by a series of firings of reporters from the state-owned Times of Zambia newspaper who were perceived to be disloyal to the ruling party, interrogations of state media employees, a slew of lawsuits against the editors of the Daily Nation, an opposition-leaning publication, and several arrests of journalists and a jail sentence for a civil servant who insulted the president.

The mainstream media market in Zambia is not considered diverse.  There are only three newspapers with national reach – Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail, and The Post Newspaper – of which two are government owned and the third is owned and edited by a close ally of the ruling party.  Coincidentally, a controversy has erupted as Labour Minister Fackson Shamenda has made statements allegedly that the company owning the Times of Zambia is bankrupt.  If the newspaper is privatized, the most likely buyer is believed to be Defence Minister Bwalya.

Some journalists say that they experience pressure to self-censure their reporting on political issues.  Following the election of President Michael Sata, more than a dozen employees of The Post Newspaper were appointed to well paying government positions, including the president’s spokesperson. “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,” said one journalist who spoke with Zambia Reports in April 2012. “What we’ve now resorted to is self censorship; we kill these stories the moment we realize they implicate government officials.”

Despite a very low internet penetration rate of just 10%, there are many people who fear that the government is determined to silence these internet publications, depriving opponents of the ruling party a voice to communicate their positions.

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