Hunt for Successor 35: Zambian Journalists are cowards

By Field Ruwe

There are no media heroes in Zambia, no “Pulitzer” winners. There’s never been because Zambian journalists have been reduced to cowards, puppets, and copycats. Authoritarian ventriloquists, KK, FTJ, LM, RB, and the incumbent President Michael Chilufya Sata have used undue power and influence to instill fear in some of our best journalists and render the profession redundant.

Actually, Sata has completely destroyed the media. Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail, ZNBC, should not be referred to as state-owned media, but propaganda houses and the people in them must be called propaganda peddlers.

There is no such a thing as a “state-owned media.” There shouldn’t be. The media should not be funded by the state, but the public. It should not support or be affiliated to the political party in power or to any political party for that matter.

While the head of state may censor content which he deems illegal, immoral or unfavorable, he must not use the media as a personal tool to solidify his authority. He must not appoint and fire media chief executives and threaten young reporters who express opposing views. Any head of state with such a tendency is called a dictator.

What has made the Zambian journalist capitulate to cowardice is job insecurity, threats, intimidation, and uncalled for arrests by the party and its government. It is political power.

Former president Kenneth Kaunda set a precedent. Rather, David Yumba began it all. Yumba was a popular Bemba announcer who joined the then Central African Broadcasting Corporation in the late 1940s as a playwright of a series called “Ukupindilo Mwela.” He worked with some of Zambia’s first broadcasters, including Alick Nkhata, Andreya Masiye, Edwin Mlongoti, Stephen Mpashi, Edward Kalete, and Edward Mungoni.

After independence Yumba was known to spend part of his newscast praising Kaunda. He would start his radio broadcast with the slogan Kumulu ni Lesa, Pansi ni Kaunda (In Heaven is God, on Earth is Kaunda) and other clichés before he got to the actual news. We liked it, and so did KK. What Yumba did not realize was he was paving KK’s path to demi-godliness.

KK’s real clashes with the media began in 1967 with the Case of the Unwholesome Fowl. It was sparked by a Lusaka butcher named Carlo Ottino who presented a rotten Christmas turkey to vice president Reuben Kamaga’s wife.

Outraged UNIP youths stoned and ransacked the butchery because they could not “tolerate any white chap treating us like in the colonial days.” The Times of Zambia in its editorial described the youths as “young fools” and “party thugs.” KK lambasted the Lonrho-owned paper and cautioned reporters.

In the same year, the relationship between him and his childhood friend Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, dipped. Kapwepwe, a journalist-turned-politician (trained in India 1951-55), and Minister of Foreign Affairs at that time, challenged vice president Reuben Kamanga for the position of deputy leader of UNIP and won.

When KK hesitated to appoint Kapwepwe as vice president, he faced open criticism from reporters at the Times of Zambia. Editorials and comments by the Times of Zambia, among other pressing issues, would force KK to succumb.

As early as 1967, it had become clear that KK was preparing to convert the Zambian society to his Philosophy of Humanism. He knew that Kapwepwe and freedom of the press would stand in his way. Their differences deepened and in 1970, Kapwepwe resigned.

When the Times of Zambia, under the editorship of Richard Hall became critical of African socialism, among other issues, KK ordered the then Managing Director of Lonhro Limited, Tom Mtine, to fire Hall and the president himself appointed his press secretary, Dunstan Kamana as Editor-in-Chief.

To the dismay of KK, Kamana proved to be an advocate of freedom of the press. He encouraged reporters like Mike Pearson to continue pointing out inefficiencies and corruption in the UNIP government. In 1971, KK moved Kamana to Dairy Produce Board and in 1972, he recalled Vernon Mwaanga from the United Nations to succeed him.

In December of the same year, KK banned the opposition ANC and declared Zambia a one-party state. His move marked the end of freedom of the press in Zambia. The intimidation of journalists and the eroding of the profession had begun. All journalists were either “humanists” and UNIP royalists, or enemies. You had to tag along with KK or get fired.

A big scare did its rounds in the media in 1975 when Bill Saidi and several other journalists were fired by KK. Saidi writes in his memoirs that the letter was delivered to him at the Times of Zambia Ndola office.

It read in part: “I have been following very closely your work as a journalist. I have been particularly concerned about your misconceptions regarding our approach to nation-building in this country…Consequently, your performance continues to be inconsistent with the philosophy and spirit of the paper which must be the mouthpiece of the Party…I am, therefore, left with no option but to fire you with immediate effect.”

Reporters were frightened. They had no choice but to become peddlers of KK’s philosophy of humanism and UNIP propaganda. Young “award material” like Patu Simoko, Samu Zulu, Mike Moono, Smokie Hangaala, Desmond Mubiana, Arthur Simuchoba, Hicks Sikazwe, Arthur Yoyo, Clara Sikaneta, Emmanuel Nyirenda, Bandawe Banda, and others, were stripped of their talent, style and charisma and put under surveillance.

They could not write freely nor could their contemporaries; Charles Chipanta, Patrick Fungamwango, Geoffrey Zulu, Godfrey Malama, Nedson Sichula, Wellington Kalwisha, Patches Lwenje, Fred Muule, Dave Sakala, and others.

And KK was firm about it: “the journalistic profession, in all its ramifications and specifications, must develop as an integral part of the humanist transformation of Zambia just as those who practice it are an integral part of its people.” Security agents were “planted” to keep an eye on those KK perceived as perfidious.

When these men and women chose the profession of journalism they were trying to fulfill their dreams of becoming the best at what they did. Some wanted to be stars and compete with other journalists around the world. They dreamt of writing some of the best stories.

They learned in school that journalism was all about truthfulness, accuracy, and objectivity, that it was impartial. They learned codes of practice and ethics. They sharpened their pens, but KK blunted them. At press conferences he intimidated them and called them “stupid idiots.” They were afraid—very afraid. Many would retire, age, or die without proper encomiums.

Enter FTJ—like a thief who comes at night. In 1991, KK was a wounded buffalo. IMF, food riots, coup attempts, had sapped what was left of his energy. Journalists of the newly created Weekly Post, Mike Hall, John Mukela, Masautso Phiri, Jowie Mwiinga, Arthur Simuchoba, and others, took advantage of KK’s exhaustion and pounded him left, right, and center.

“We were waiting to see how long it would take for us to be locked up,” Jowie Mwiinga told Jane Perlez of the New York Times in 1991. “But we’ve been here five months.”

Encouraged by the Weekly Post’s support for the MMD, FTJ made the media a part of his “democratic” agenda.

“We must not fear criticism from the people,” he declared, “that should only make us work harder.”

It was all a fluke. In 1993, journalists would be back where they were before 1991—in a dungeon of snakes. Rattled by rumors to overthrow his government by UNIP in a plot code named “Zero Option Plan”, allegedly engineered by Cuthbert Nguni and Wezi Kaunda, FTJ’s demeanor took a 360-degree turn. He ditched democracy for authoritarianism and became intolerant of criticism. The little Freedom of the press left was wiped out. Times of Zambia and the Zambia Daily Mail were solidified as propaganda papers for the MMD.

Notice how I do not include Fred Mmembe on the list of seasoned journalists in Zambia. Although he is one of the founders of The Post, he is not a journalist per se, even with a certificate by correspondence. He has never sat in a journalism class, worked as a reporter, and risen through the ranks. Mmembe is first and foremost an accountant. When he left his vocation to launch the Weekly Post with Mike Hall, John Mukela, and Masautso Phiri, he was a dough-keeper.

In Zambia, like in many other countries, journalism is often mistaken for some form of art. Anyone with a sense of purpose can declare himself a journalist. All he needs are basic writing skills, inquisitiveness, obstinacy, and the ability to toil.

And yet many things go into the training of a journalist. A professional journalist is one conversant with the history of journalism, its law and ethics; one who is trained in media writing, including editorial composition, news gathering, reporting, and newspaper administration.

Mmembe is self-taught.—through observation. It shows in all his editorials.  He is still unfamiliar with the structure of a journalistic sentence. What has made Mmembe a “star” is his use of forbidden journalistic language; some of it derogatory and disdainful.

Armed with words like “stupid,” he led the onslaught against Kaunda, Chiluba, Mwanawasa, Banda, and portrayed them as dictators. He also hurt the PF opposition leader Michael Sata—badly. For that he was awarded the MISA Press Freedom Award; the International Press Freedom Award, and the Committee to Protect Journalists Award.

Mmembe was headed for “greatness” until September 23, 2011. It was the day Sata crushed The Post. He knew that to have a firm control over the media he had to cripple Mmembe first, and he did. He stripped Mmembe of his personnel and slew him.

We all know that Sata can’t stand Mmembe. Here are some of the reasons. In May 1992, The Post ran an editorial that described Sata as a political prostitute who “survived vetting on several occasions;” that he exhibited “riotous behavior,” and “intolerant behavior on television. The editorial ended with the words “there is nothing honorable about this dishonorable man.”

In January 1993, The Post published a story that Sata had diverted a government grant of K1.6bn for his own benefit. The paper described Sata as “petty and unscrupulous” and urged Chiluba to fire him.

On September 14, 2006, Mmembe in his editorial entitled “Sata is not our messiah” wrote: “It is not difficult for anyone to realize or guess why Mr. Sata today has become the most ardent defender of people who plundered public resources. This is because they are his financiers.”

There are many other deep wounds Mmembe has inflicted on Sata. Here is another: “this man (Sata) will do anything to be elected but Zambians will not be fooled.” Mmembe must count himself lucky to be where he is today.

Sata, here referred to as “King Cobra,” has turned The Post into a PF mouthpiece. With that the Zambian media has died. A Zambian journalist dare advocate for freedom of the press. He will be arrested and thrown in the TB-infected cells, cautions government spokesman Kennedy Sakeni. Sakeni’s bully and aggressive rhetoric is atrocious. Utterances like “the law will catch up with them” are a stark reminder of how dangerous it is to be a journalist in Sata’s country. Such is the reason Zambian journalists are cowards. How I wish Sakeni could first arrest Amos Malupenga at his ministry, George Chellah at State House, and Fred Mmembe at The Post for slander, defamation, libel and other past “crimes” before he starts to persecute innocent professionals.

Sakeni should not apply legal and regulatory pressures to silence critical voices. When he reads what he perceives as defamatory or libelous, he must be quick to rebut or decant like his predecessors did. He is a Public Relations Officer. He must hold regular press briefings to defend and clear the air. Hiding in threats exposes him as a perverse cabinet minister and chief spokesman who has no clue what journalism is about. He must be careful; he could turn out to be the worst Chief government spokesman in our history.

Our journalists are brave professionals, who given freedom to factually report, will be world-renowned heroes. They went to college to learn how to write with candor. They have the potential to be great. All they need is freedom of the press! There can never be media heroes in a country where there is no freedom of the press. All Zambian journalists must be brave enough to fight laws that limit them to propaganda peddling. The profession of journalism expects those who chose it be as tough as steel. Don’t be a coward; stand up for your professional right!

Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and serves as an adjunct professor (lecturer) in Boston. ©Ruwe2012

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