Following reported violations on the press in Zambia that have included the closing of a newspaper and two radio stations, CIVICUS speaks to Wilson Pondamali a Zambian freelance investigative journalist and media activist to detail the situation
1. Describe Zambia’s media landscape?
Zambia is home to a plural media since the reintroduction of a political multiparty system in 1991 when veteran trade unionist Fredrick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) ousted the liberation leader Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP).
2. Please explain recent violations of the press in Zambia?
The Post newspaper of late has been facing severe harassment. The Post newspaper, a forerunner to the Weekly Post, was one of the first independent newspapers and continued to champion democracy and good governance by holding government accountable. Incidentally, the harassment of The Post newspaper started way back but the previous leaders between 1990 and 2008 – Kaunda, Chiluba and Levy Mwanawasa were tolerant of it.
Mwanawasa succeeded Chiluba in 2001 but died in office in 2008, being succeeded by Rupiah Banda who was later defeated by Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF) in 2011. The suffocation of The Post newspaper which manifested in 2016 during the reign of Michael Sata’s successor and incumbent Edgar Lungu could have started under President Banda apparently because the tabloid showed open support for Sata from the first day Banda was nominated to contest the 2008 election, in which he narrowly defeated Sata.
The Post newspaper continued to be critical in the three-year reign of Banda while projecting Sata in the limelight. It is undisputable that the tabloid played a pivotal role in the PF’s 2011 victory. This can be supported by the large number of its staff who were offered jobs in the civil service thereafter. The managing editor, and Editor in Chief Fred M’membe’s right hand man Amos Malupenga, was appointed as permanent secretary, while M’membe’s deputy Sam Mujuda was appointed into foreign service as high commissioner. The news editor George Chellah became press aide at State house while many other journalists were appointed press attaches to Zambia’s foreign missions. Sata died after only three years in office and was succeeded by Edgar Lungu in a tight 2015 election, defeating closest rival UPND’s Hakainde Hichilema mainly with support from former President Banda. Lungu himself received fair criticism from The Post during and before the 2015 and 2016 elections.
It would be correct to speculate that Banda was still vindictive of The Post and wanted it closed as evidenced by his threatening statement made when he was still in office. Being a close ally of Lungu, the newspaper company is now being pursued over a disputed tax claim by the Zambia Revenue Authority, leading to the tax authority threatening to seize the company’s fleet of vehicles and the premises on 21 June 2016 leaving the newspapers workers and owners to operate outside.
But then that was not enough, some workers who claimed not to have been paid applied to the High court to have the newspaper liquidated and a long-time foe of M’membe, Lusaka lawyer Lewis Mosho was appointed liquidator on 1 September 2016. Mosho, of Lewis Nathan and partners immediately after assuming the liquidator role ‘fired’ M’membe and lawyers Mutembo and Nchima Nchito.
After The Post was closed down, the only media that remained as the strongest force was the privately owned Muvi TV with its sister company Komboni radio, both based in Lusaka but broadcasting to many parts of the country.
Zambian broadcast media, except the national broadcaster Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation – ZNBC are all regulated by the ‘not so independent’ Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) which was created by an Act of parliament. The IBA board and director general are appointed by the minister of information and its offices are located at the government owned mass media complex, housing ZNBC and another government media agency Zambia news and Information Services.
The IBA suspended the broadcasting licenses of Muvi TV, Komboni and Itezhitezhi radio stations a few days after the disputed re-election of Lungu in the August general election. They were accused of allegedly broadcasting statements that were a danger to national security. The three media outlets were never charged nor given a chance to be heard but were just served with suspension notices and switched off. Their premises were taken over by heavily armed police who denied workers any entry to the premises. The stations were then reinstated in an apparent ‘diluted’ form weeks after the election petition hearing had commenced and Lungu was sworn into office. In the process, Komboni executive director Lesa Kasoma Nyirenda was assaulted by police as she tried to gain entry into her premises after being reinstated.
3. Why are we witnessing a clamp down on media?
The Edgar Lungu led PF regime seems to be in a mode of not tolerating divergent views as can be witnessed by continued threats on any dissenting views. Some of the threats are in the party while others are external. He has kept a strong grip on the PF, as witnessed by the harsh treatment of past PF members who resigned and sought to rejoin. One such member is Miles Sampa who was given some conditions before he could be readmitted. Another possible challenger Chishimba Kambwili, was relieved of his influential position of youth chairman in the central committee and later stripped of his position as information minister.
To ensure he is in a safe haven, most media houses that have hosted people critic to his administration have been victimised by state machinery or even party cadres. In principle, the President seems not to tolerate criticism hence the clamp-down of critical media and journalists.
4. What was the situation of freedom of expression during last year’s election?
There was a serious and visible clamp-down on freedom of expression in the run up to the elections as evidenced by countless refusals by the authorities for the opposition to organise party meetings. The main victims were UPND cadres who also had their meetings disrupted by unruly PF cadres.
Radio stations that hosted the opposition members were also victimised by police or cadres themselves with impunity and no arrests were made. The scenario has continued as evidenced by the detention of and threats to journalists hosting opposition. Prime TV, Chipata TV, Mkushi radio and Radio Mano, to mention but a few have been victims.
The ongoing harassment of The Mast newspaper owned by Fred’s wife Mutinta Mazoka M’membe is yet another example of a clampdown on freedom of expression. This is what led me to stage a one-man protest at the M’membe’s residence on Sunday, 19 February 2017.
5. What is the way forward for media in Zambia
There is need for a very strong force of media rights activism in the nation, which must be backed by legal instruments to ensure that journalists are protected from both economic and professional manipulation. Most private media houses are paying about K1 000 (US$100) per month salaries and this exposes journalists to temptations of unethical conduct.
There is also need for effective retraining as some media houses are manned by unprofessional journalists, especially the community radio stations who form the majority of plural media. To date, the Media Institute for Southern Africa Zambia chapter is the only organisation that seems to champion media violations but over some time it has also not shown enough stamina hence receiving resentment and criticism from media practitioners. Today Zambian media is very highly polarised and there is a need to resolve this.
6. How can international CSOs assist in the situation?
As local CSOs remain threatened, international CSOs can help mitigate the situation by lobbying both the Zambian government and other governments to allow for freedom of expression. This could be done through interventions at international meetings that are being attended by Zambia’s leadership. There is also need for capacity building among the Zambian media practitioners and activists and lobbying for legal reforms such as the long-awaited but elusive Access to Information law. Exchange programmes and attachments of Zambians to other media outlets outside the country would help as well.
Wilson Pondamali is a freelance investigative journalist and media activist who has worked in print and electronic media, both in government and privately owned media. He is the founding editor of a community newspaper Kabwe Bulletin and currently sits on the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Zambia chapter) board as membership committee chairperson. He is also chairing this year’s MISA Zambia media awards to be hosted in May. He holds various qualifications from the University of Zambia, Zambia Institute of Mass Communication, Institute for Advancement of Journalism (South Africa), Cavendish University Zambia and Fojo Media Institute of Sweden.