It is not often that we see Zambian government officials under the current administration make international visits of distinction, so it was noteworthy to pay close attention when our esteemed Minister for Information and Broadcasting Services Joseph Katema spoke before a United Nations committee in New York this week.
Katema eloquently informed the U.N. that the Patriotic Front-led government has a “hands-off approach in the operations of the media sector,” and that this government believes in an “unwavering commitment to providing a conducive environment for the growth of a free, professional and independent media in the country.”
To hear a PF Minister tell the world that Zambia respects freedom of expression is about as credible as Syria’s Basher al-Assad giving a lecture on peaceful crowd control, or President Barack Obama claiming that the NSA respects privacy. It is just terribly, hilariously and undeniably false.
Let’s go through just a quick review of the facts on the ground in Zambia, as opposed to the fantasy enjoyed by Katema and his party.
Since coming into power, the PF government has placed tighter restrictions on state-owned media, including the broadcaster ZNBC, and newspapers the Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia, using them as clear propaganda outfits where the ruling party is only praised and never criticised, while opposition figures are either ignored or ridiculed, slandered and attacked. The largest private newspaper, The Post, is similarly beholden to the ruling party, functioning as the most aggressive source of distorted information.
Under such a closed media environment, independent journalists have been subject to violent attacks, intimidation, threats, and arrests.
Journalists alleged to be associated with online news website Zambian Watchdog, including Clayson Hamasaka, Wilson Mpondamali, and Thomas Zyambo, have all been arrested and held in jail under politically motivated absurd charges. Police have used deeply corrupt methods against the journalists, including falsely planting fake evidence to secure the basis for a charge.
The documentary filmmaker Chanda Chimba III has been subjected to a show trial, while the draconian Public Order Act has been invoked numerous times to halt the activity of civil society groups and chill free speech.
Other independent journalists and publications, such as the brave Lusaka-based Daily Nation, have been subjected to numerous frivolous lawsuits from the president himself claiming millions of dollars.
Radio stations have had their licenses revoked only for giving airtime to opposition figures – a measure which sends a very strong message of self-censorship.
The PF government, in fact, has taken the extraordinary step of hiring Chinese contractors to conduct selective online censorship, blocking access to websites such as the Zambian Watchdog as well as this publication, Zambia Reports. Not even Zimbabwe or other African nations with human rights issues have taken such aggressive measures against freedom of expression.
The above-listed facts constitute a documented history of serious violations of basic freedom of expression by the current Patriotic Front government which deserves serious examination by U.N. authorities.
Under these conditions, Zambian journalists are working under a climate of fear, where they are afraid to write under their real names for fear of retribution, loss of employment, arrest, or even loss of life.
So it is confusing to see Minister Katema make claims about Zambia’s dedication to free media when at the same time that the nation’s ranking on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index was downgraded by 21 positions this year.
How are we not to laugh when we hear Katema claim that the PF government respects the Information Act (they don’t), while at the same time the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recorded 16 violations against freedom of the press in the year 2013 alone?
But this is the kind of government we are becoming accustomed to, where ministers openly and clearly tell lies before the international community. It certainly makes many of us miss the days of the former Information Minister Kennedy Sakeni, who passed away recently. Sakeni, for all the issues faced by the media, at least had the maturity to speak with greater clarity to address the challenges faced in the media environment instead of simply presenting a fictional depiction of the situation.
Officials at the United Nations must be made aware of these criminal violations of the law by the Zambian government. Katema is said to be meeting with UN Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Mr Peter Launsky-Tieffenthal and his directors, the Chairperson of the Committee on Information Mrs Lyutha Al-Mughairy.
Let us hope that Mr Luansky-Tieffenthal and Mrs Al-Mughairy are not fooled by this attempt at deception and cover-up of the repression of freedom of expression in Zambia. Make no mistake: press freedom is under threat in Zambia.