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Zambia's Online Media: Under Attack and on the Attack

Under Michael Sata, online media has filled a gap for critical news in Zambia. Officials are hitting back with arrests, charges and the jamming of websites.
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A line of disused computers at a lab in Chikanta, Zambia. Photograph by Adam Oxford.

Lusaka, Zambia:

On the top floor of a downtown highrise block in Lusaka, editor Billy Kazoka looks out over the newsroom of Radio Phoenix. Phones are ringing. Reporters tap him on the shoulder as he drafts an information request on his computer. A stereo tuned to the house station warbles the morning’s broadcasts beneath the din. Up here, it’s the news as usual, even as Zambia’s President Michael Sata’s administration clashes with corners of the country’s online media sector – ordering arrests, pressing charges and jamming websites.

“There is friction between government and certain sectors of the private media”, says Kazoka, though he adds that his organisation has managed to avoid such tension. “Us, we haven’t had that problem. Here, we haven’t been sued by the government.”

It’s a much different story in the virtual newsrooms of Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports. Over the past month, three Watchdog journalists have been arrested and are facing a series of criminal charges ranging from sedition to violations of the country’s Secrets Act. Significant jail time looms ahead.

Zambia Reports, meanwhile, also had its site jammed, and the outlet’s editorial board says its reporters have experienced arrests and charges as well. Most recently, trouble has stemmed from the citing of an anonymous source detailing government plans to allegedly block access to both websites through Facebook and Twitter. The same report went onto forewarn a blanket social media blackout during the 2016 elections.

Still, the clampdown has been aggressive enough to attract the support of international press defenders such as the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (CPJ) and Reporters without Borders (RWB), with the latter launching mirror sites for both outlets in a bid to outmanoeuvre government online.

On 25 July, the editorial board of the Zambia Reports wrote a letter to the government requesting “a detailed explanation regarding the state’s decision to block access to Zambia Reports, including instructions of the necessary steps required to resolve the issue”. The letter claims that “Zambia Reports has received no information from the government explaining why access has been blocked” and that is “has received no other form of complaint, request, or notice of violation”. It goes on the say that “The blocking of access to our website in Zambia is a violation of our right to freedom of expression” and that “we view this online censorship as unlawful”.

Regression or progression?

There are journalists in Zambia – such as Voice of America correspondent Chanda Chimba – who say all this amounts to a massive regression in the country’s human rights profile, all at the hands of President Sata. But others describe a shifting set of frictions between government and media that changes shape and direction as different parties and presidents rise and fall from power.

Certainly, Sata and his Patriotic Front (PF) party did not invent press oppression in Zambia – even though he uses the country’s criminal code to attack opponents, and his supporters harass and intimidate reporters in the field. Indeed, RWB ranked Zambia 72 out of 179 for press freedom in 2013, up from 86 in 2012 and 104 a decade ago. CPJ and RWB keep archives detailing years of anti-media manoeuvres perpetrated by successive governments, and the litany is long.

For instance, in 2011, a few months before Sata came to power, Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) supporters violently attacked a Muvi TV news crew reporting on illegal land seizures and distributions. In 2009, Rupiah Banda’s MMD government pressed obscenity charges against then-Zambian Post news editor Chansa Kabwela after she sent the vice-president photos of a woman giving birth in a hospital parking lot during a staff strike. In 2010, Post editor Frank M’membe was arrested and sentenced to four months hard labour (but ultimately released) for an editorial he wrote criticising Banda’s government. Five years before, M’membe was charged with defamation after criticising late MMD president Levy Mwanawasa. Mwanawasa also once tried to deport satirist Roy Clarke for lampooning him in print.

The previous regime of Frederick Chiluba had its own rap sheet of violations, and while some note that founding president Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party state neutralised partisan politics in the media, he was not without his own repressive tendencies too.

However, now that Sata and the PF are in power, many say The Post has lost its critical edge. The political landscape has shifted, so much so that Kabwela – once a thorn in the government’s side – was appointed as press attaché to Zambia’s High Commission in Malawi. The relative absence of a critical press left a void, says Kazoka, which was quickly filled by online entities like Zambian Watchdog. The problem is that, while certainly critical, the online press is sometimes overly provocative and lacking in ethics.

Online ethics

“The online media is a very useful source of information for the public”, says Henry Kabwe, former chair of the Media Institute of Southern Africa, Zambia (MISA Zambia). “The biggest challenge with the online media is media ethics and professionalism. People benefit, but credibility can be strained because of ethical issues and quality.”

A common Watchdog phraseology that lingers in Kazoka’s mind is “ailing dictator”, rhetoric he says has no place in the Phoenix newsroom. Rather, he says that the Phoenix news gathering procedure involves the government, opposition and civil society on equal terms, and that the target of any charge is given a chance to defend him or herself in the same piece. In online corners, however, hyperbole is common, as are stories reliant on a single anonymous source, many of which are attack pieces.

“The media is indeed very partisan, and there clearly is a lot of room for growth for more professional reporting”, says the Zambia Reports spokesperson. “The harder the state cracks down on the few independent voices in the media, the more passionately critical those individuals become, which of course feeds into a self-perpetuating cycle. This has become compounded by the fact that most of the journalists that helped this government into power when working at The Post were then later given highly sought-after positions in the government. These same journalists are now also seen as leading the charge to jail independent journalists, so you have the media destroying itself.”

Of course, says Kabwe, there is a civil law procedure the government should utilise to address defamation and other media malfunctions. Not long after Sata was elected, MISA Zambia released a report detailing and critiquing all the various legal tools the government has at its disposal. Many are criminal, with commensurate jail terms. The organisation also lobbies government to pass or amend long-awaited media-related legislations, such as the Access to Information Act, and the Independent Broadcasting and Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation Acts.

Campaigns to repeal

Meanwhile, a coordinated series of meetings is happening across the continent under the auspices of the African Union’s African Commission on Human and People’s Rights and various regional human rights groups. The goal is to convince governments to repeal criminal laws affecting the media. A special rapporteur on freedom of expression and access to information was selected in 2010 to work in conjunction with regional advocacy groups. One of them, the Human Rights Centre, Pretoria, hopes to release a pilot study on Zambia’s situation by the end of the year. The study will recommend a campaign to do this using advocacy, litigation or both.

However, in Ghana, where criminal libel and sedition laws were repealed in 2001, some observers say the media has since grown more partisan and hysterical. Some worry that campaigning for online ethics might place Zambia on a similar path.

“Our efforts, when we challenged governments on some of the laws, are being hampered by the fact that the online media have compromised on ethics”, says Kabwe, who himself was the target of online reporting alleging financial impropriety and which eventually cost him his chairmanship of MISA Zambia.

Advocates of online news freedom don’t buy that line of thinking. To them, it shouldn’t be up to the media to polish itself before the government awards fundamental and internationally recognised legal rights.

“I do not believe that arresting journalists on overdue library books and charging someone with sedition for writing an obituary is helpful to the overall atmosphere of developing a vibrant market for journalism, and neither is a website publishing unsubstantiated rumours that have less to do with the public interest than personally insulting public figures”, says the spokesperson from Zambia Reports. “Today, under the Patriotic Front, it is an unfortunate fact that the country is living in fear, so when those brave enough choose to stand up and report the news, what comes out may sound very defensive and critical.”

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