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Freedom of press in Zambia

Blocking of newssites is just one part of censorship in Zambia – but there is hope

The much talked about liberal democracy in Zambia is significantly marred by the infringement that the government has on the operations of both the independent and public media.
01.12.2014, 10:2001.12.2014, 13:27
Nathan Chambula, sambia / Lusaka star

Since independence in 1964, the press in Zambia has always been at confrontation with various regimes to date.

Nathan Chambula studies at UNZA and works as a reporter for the Lusaka Star. He did this piece for the Swiss website<a href="" target="_blank">&nbsp;To read the slightly modified and finally <span id="editable-range-boundary-2" style="line-height: 0; display: none;"></span>published </a>version in german, click here.<span id="editable-range-boundary-1" style="line-height: 0; display: none;">&nbsp;</span>
Nathan Chambula studies at UNZA and works as a reporter for the Lusaka Star. He did this piece for the Swiss website To read the slightly modified and finally published version in german, click here.Bild: watson

Even the president calls journalists

Frank Peter Kasoma, a former professor in the Department of Mass Communication at the University of Zambia in his book entitled «The history of the press in Zambia» quotes Mr. Grey Zulu, then Minister of Home affairs in the Kenneth Kaunda regime saying, «I am terribly disappointed with the Times of Zambia, I cannot think of anything to be termed more as the height of folly and irresponsibility than a newspaper prepared to publish an article in which the Head of State and the police have been mentioned, but declines to check the truth of the story with them.» 

In Zambia, It is very common for an editor to get a phone call from a minister, or even the president, with a lecture on what should not have been published, and how it must be followed up with a second story to counter the first story, and so on.

Two of the nationwide available newspapers in Zambia. The Post is privately owned, the Daily Mail by the government.
Two of the nationwide available newspapers in Zambia. The Post is privately owned, the Daily Mail by the government.Bild: watson

Arrests, dismissals and threats

When the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) party took power from the United National Independence Party (UNIP), they promised to dismantle Kaunda’s state propaganda apparatus – the Times (newspaper), Mail (newspaper) and ZNBC (national TV station). Instead they kept it on, and also retained the system where journalists who stepped out of line, for example by following their professional ethics of reporting both sides of a political story, were unceremoniously fired. 

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More than often the Post newspaper came into disagreement with the Chiluba government. Editors and Journalists were thrown in jail, fired and faced various forms of prosecutions whenever they published anti-government material. For example, the Post newspaper issue of February 5th 1996 was confiscated and completely banned from being sold. 

Fear of jail is worse than the fear of being fired

Furthermore, people are mindful of legal implications and other implications resulting from writing offensive material. This makes them to be conscience of what they write and this has an implication on the final material that is published. These false prosecutions, usually on completely trumped up charges, are designed merely to put the offending journalists in jail so they could not write the truth in a newspaper or broadcast it on the radio. It also had other purposes. The main purpose was to put at least the fear of jail, into all journalists. The fear of jail is worse than the fear of being fired, especially if you have ever had the dubious privilege of seeing the inside of a Zambian jail, or even the police cells. 

This has been the trend over the past three regimes in Zambia. Governments have come and governments have gone but the plight of journalists is only put into consideration during election time and once the media has been used as a ladder to get into the various offices, it becomes receiver of discredit from the then election candidates.

Students at UNZA care about the freedom of press.
Students at UNZA care about the freedom of press.Bild: watson

Blocking of newssites

On 24 June, 2014 the government blocked access to Zambian Watchdog, an independent news website that is based abroad and is critical of the current government and also arrested three of Zambian Watchdog’s presumed contributors: Thomas Zyambo, Clayson Hamasaka and Wilson Pondamali. 

Hamasaka is charged with possessing obscene material. Zyambo was freed provisionally after 48 hours in detention. He was facing up to seven years in prison on charges of sedition and «possession of seditious material with intent to publish». Pondamali was facing a possible two-year jail term on a charge of «unlawful possession of a restricted military pamphlet». Pondamali and Zyambo have been acquitted. 

Newsroom of UNZA Radio at the University.
Newsroom of UNZA Radio at the University.Bild: watson

The blocking of Zambia Reports and Zambian Watchdog is clear evidence that the new control devices are now in place. One of the security experts in charge of Zambian Watchdog’s website hosting said it was obvious from the way the Zambian authorities responded to the attempts to bypass the blocking that they were using filtering methods based on Deep Packet Inspection (DPI). 

Kambwili stormed UNZA Radio

According to The Post newspaper, on 8 October 2014, Kambwili stormed UNZA Radio in the company of an unknown man in an effort to intimidate student reporters. He demanded to see station manager Macpherson Mutale and Lusaka Star presenter Mark Simuwe. A visibly annoyed Kambwili first stormed the station booth, demanding to see Simuwe and then the newsroom, which was mainly comprised of second-year mass communication students.  

Booth of UNZA Radio.
Booth of UNZA Radio.Bild: watson

«He first went into the booth, disrupted the presenter on air, demanding [to see] Mark. Then when the presenter told him [that] Mark and the station manager were not there, he opened the newsroom door and started shouting ‹Where is Mark?› After that, he told us 'I will have you all fired', although we wondered ‹How does he fire students?›», said a mass communication student.

watson in Sambia
Leiter Unternehmensentwicklung Sven Ruoss und Sportchef Reto Fehr führen in Zusammenarbeit mit der Schweizer Hilfsorganisation B360 education partnerships an der Universität von Lusaka (UNZA) in Sambia ein zweiwöchiges Modul über Online-Journalismus durch. Die Studenten erhalten dabei wertvolle Inputs für ihre Newsplattform «Lusaka Star». Die Zeitung wurde vor rund zwei Jahren mit Unterstützung der Zürcher Agentur Mediaschneider in ein Online-Portal umgewandelt und wird vom Studiengang Mass Communication betreut.

Moreover, the Zambian government has rejected a draft constitution that would have prevented it from interfering with online and electronic news media, even though it spent more than $50 million to draft it. Instead, the government is drafting a law that would regulate online news media in order to stop what it called «Internet abuse». It is unclear whether the law would also regulate social media such as Twitter and Facebook

Media institution start reacting to  intimidation and censorship

It is lately that even media institution have started reacting to intimidation and censorship. For example, Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) has issued a statement that it will not allow it's journalists from being harassed by those who wield political power and will do everything to protect its staff. «The Board and Management of ZNBC therefore demands that all Media Statements must be duly signed and no verbal statements or instructions will be entertained, to protect ZNBC staff from abuse by people who wield political power. The Board and Management has also re-iterated its earlier position to political parties and their supporters not to turn ZNBC into a political battle field by frequenting the newsroom. Lastly, the Board has assured staff of its unwavering and unflinching support in their generation, treatment and dissemination of news content in line with ZNBC’s National Mandate to serve the public», reads the statement.

The development comes after it emerged Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili had forced his way into the ZNBC news room and issued threats to journalists after they had run stories on the ‹suspended› PF Central Committee members and UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema. 

These and many other examples have been the trends of journalism practice in many other African counrties. Journalists are jailed, beaten and threatened with dismissal if they decide to stick to their ethical codes of conducts. Hence they have resorted to self-censorship for fear consequences of not doing so.

In Zambia, as in many other African countries, the Internet has emerged as a news source because of strict government controls on mainstream media. So, African governments have become increasingly concerned about online news and social media sites being used to express opposition opinions, and with the use of social media to plan protests. This is evident when Social media played a pivotal role in protests that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. 

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