Opinion

Zambia’s Missing Freedom of Information Bill

We would like to join the clarion call from journalists and other stakeholders for the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI), which is being kept under lock and key by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

So is the missing FOI Bill just another broken campaign promise, along with the new constitution, the Barotseland Agreement, and more money in all our pockets, or a sign of incompetence?  From the look of things, the Patrotic Front government appears determined to undermine the passage of the FOI Bill.

The launch of the FOI Bill has been postponed trice on unconvincing grounds.  First, the then-Minister of Information Fackson Shamenda decided to travel to the Copperbelt for a family funeral when he was expected in Lusaka to launch the much anticipated project.

Although Mr Fackson Shamenda is ill-vested about matters to do with journalism, he spoke passionately about the FOI Bill, but it was obvious to all and sundry that he was merely waffling. This is was at the time the Ministry of Labour was inter-linked with the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which was a wrong alignment of ministries altogether.

Later, Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga announced the postponement for the launch of the Bill because there was no input from the Attorney General Mumba Malila, who was reported to be out of Zambia at the time.

Two weeks ago, Amos Malupenga went to the national public media and announced that the Freedom of Information Bill would be availed to journalist and members of the general public.

But hitherto, the FOI Bill is still hidden under his discretionary control and no one has any slight idea of its contents.  It is being kept concealed away like a top class state secret.

We are aware that Amos Malupenga has been ducking meetings with stakeholders such as the World Bank, who have a major input towards the drafting of the material.  Mr. Malupenga, the former managing editor of the Post, has now gone underground but the journalism fraternity is still waiting for him to deliver on his promise.

Insiders have intimated that the Ministry of Information has been working without consultations in drafting the FOI Bill.

The PF had promised to enact the FOI Bill immediately it assumed power, but this is one of the many promises that have been abandoned.

No sensible citizen has ever regarded Amos Malupenga in high esteem, even during his time at the Post newspaper where he danced to the proprietor Fred M’membe’s tunes.  He was not one of the few remaining journalists to exercise professional objectivity, but instead openly supported and aligned himself to the PF.

It is no wonder he is now in the PF government and has abandoned his push for the MMD regime to enact the FOI Bill when he was at the Post newspaper.

Why does the government keep postponing the launch of the FOI Bill? Is the document so complicated? Has the government changed its position on the FOI Bill?  Or is it that now they are in power, the PF realizes that they would prefer to have a monopoly on information?

We were told the PF would handle the FOI Bill with the seriousness it deserves, and at least attempt to feign an interest in transparency. But what is it that has changed now for the regime to keep dragging its feet on the matter?

For many observers, this is too much for the government having realized that running government is more serious, responsible and dedicated business than presiding over a cluster of political party cadres.

We initially thought the PF regime would simply browse over the enactment of the FOI Bill, but the matter may take for as long as the regime is in charge for it to attempt implementation of the Bill, if at all it would be done.

Freedom of the press and freedom of expression are under threat.  The Freedom of Information Act promises to enhance these virtues, but under the PF, matters are getting worse.

Recently, Malupenga threatened to close the University of Zambia Radio station, accusing it of being politically biased instead of focusing on its mandate of being a learning tool.  Malupenga has forgotten so soon that Mr Sata thrived on community radio stations such as Icengelo in Kitwe, Yatsani Radio in Lusaka and UNZA Radio itself to propagate his political fortunes.

Mr Sata and his PF members used the station to criticize the then MMD government. What has changed now for Malupenga to meddle into the broadcasting licence for UNZA Radio?

Malupenga wrote several editorial opinions in the Post newspaper, demanding for the FOI Bill to be implemented and to allow for the extension of broadcasting ranges for community radio stations. He is doing the opposite now that he has the power to implement the matters he desired then.

Malupenga has a chance to redeem himself now. He can focus on other important matters before his attention rather than wasting efforts on interfering and meddling in the media.

There is a very big allegation that the media operates freely under the PF when compared to the previous MMD regime. This is with regard to the public media in the Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail and the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC).

The opposite is rather the truth. News stories have remained mere praise articles for the government. Had it not been for the scarcity of jobs in the fraternity, scores of journalists would resign and go for greener pastures in the public media. Many journalists in the public media operate like censored praise singers for the government.

There is nothing critical about the government, which the public media publishes. Reporters in the public media are still timid to publish many investigative reports about corruption and any other matters critical of the government.

They are threatened with dismissals and other forms of punishment once articles critical of the government are published.

The Independent Broadcasting Act (IBA) must be put in place to make the appointment of the Director General for ZNBC in dependent. The appointment of the Managing Directors for the Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily mail must also be made independent.

It is only when this is done that we could expect some form of independence in the public media.

These are matters that Malupenga must address instead of meddling into the operations of media houses.

But over and above this, the enactment of the FOI Bill must be done now and not later because this is critical to the survival of the local media as promised by the PF government.

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