By Naomi Hunt, Press Freedom Adviser
VIENNA, 5 Oct. 2011 – Media reports on Tuesday that Zambian Watchdog reporter George Zulu is in police custody are not true, the reporter told IPI yesterday, while expressing concern that the newspaper’s staff is being intimidated by police who want them to reveal their sources on a controversial story.
IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie called on Zambia’s new government to be diligent in protecting the rights of journalists to report freely and in calling to task police or other officials who would intimidate journalists or pressure them into revealing their sources.
At issue is a police investigation into an allegedly fabricated email the Zambian Watchdog published this past July. The online news website is under investigation for alleged false publication because of a purportedly leaked email, the contents of which had serious political consequences for those who appeared to have written it.
The email apparently shows a local politician discussing a $45 million donation that the Patriotic Front (PF) had purportedly received from Taiwanese and Afghanistan businessmen. The exact currency was not specified in the email. The email was picked up by other media houses, and led to a police investigation of the politician and the purported recipient of the email.
Watchdog Editor Lloyd Himaambo, who resides outside of Zambia, said he stands by the veracity of the July email, which he said he has every reason to believe is real because of the source he received it from.
But the politician in the email, former opposition member Given Lubinda, filed a complaint with police, saying that the email was fabricated and that his email account may have been hacked, according to reports. It is this complaint which has led to the current investigation into the Zambian Watchdog.
Lubinda and PF leader Michael Sata also sued the government-owned newspapers that carried the story for libel.
Since Zambia’s September elections, Lubinda has been appointed information minister and Michael Sata is now the president of Zambia.
Since the beginning of investigations, the Watchdog and its reporters have been repeatedly intimidated, and the Zambian Watchdog said it believes the investigation is related to a vendetta against the news site.
Zambian public broadcaster ZNBC cited on Tuesday an inaccurate police report that Zulu had been arrested and jailed. ZNBC said, “Police have finally arrested fugitive Zambian Watchdog journalist George Nelson Zulu who has been on a police wanted list for publishing false information with intent to cause alarm and fear in the public.” Police spokeswoman Ndandula Siamana, who is cited as the source of information in the ZNBC report, confirmed on Wednesday that the report is inaccurate. As of Thursday morning, the false report was still online.
Last week, Himaambo told IPI that half a dozen police threatened his family, including his 82-year old grandfather, with a beating by if he did not reveal Himaambo’s whereabouts – an allegation that police have subsequently denied.
As part of the same investigation, Zulu was questioned by police on Monday about his connections to the Zambian Watchdog, but was not placed under arrest or taken into custody, according to Zulu, his lawyer, and police spokesperson Ndandula Siamana. Zulu has denied that he was involved in publication of the email in question.
Since taking office last week, Minister Lubinda has pleased media advocates by promising to bring a long-awaited Freedom of Information Bill to parliament within his first 90 days in office, and to ‘liberate’ ZNBC and the government newspapers so that they can “operate professionally.”
“Please do not hero-worship the president, don’t tell stories that do not exist on the ground. We do not want you to improve our image. Let the people tell us where we are failing and also to give us accolades where we are succeeding,” Lubinda was quoted by the Times of Zambia as saying.
Repeated attempts by IPI to reach the president’s spokesperson and the information ministry to voice concern over the investigations into the Watchdog were unsuccessful, but Information Minister Lubinda provided a statement to IPI through the Press Freedom Committee of The Post newspaper.
Lubinda was quoted as saying that the timing of the investigation has been “unfortunate,” and noted that he had filed the complaint long before taking office. Lubinda said he had not authored the email in question, and asked police to find out who did. He also said that it had not occurred to him to deal with the Zambian Watchdog, as he first has to deal with the public media – as he had promised on taking office, the Committee told IPI.
“We are very concerned by the tactics used by investigators in this case,” said IPI Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. “Officials should take seriously the allegations of police harassment against Lloyd Himaambo’s family. The government must understand that journalists have a right and indeed a duty to protect their sources, and that they also have a right to publish information that they have reason to believe is accurate without fear of punishment.”
The Zambian Watchdog is an online news site staffed by five full-time reporters and two full-time news editors, but also publishes contributions under pseudonyms and anonymously, Himaambo told IPI. This is a result of the harassment and intimidation the Watchdog has received in the past, he said, adding that it is also because some of the contributors also work for the public media, which remains under government oversight despite legislation, passed in 2002, that would make the public broadcaster ZNBC independent.
“IPI also welcomes Information Minister Lubinda’s statements in favour of a Freedom of Information Bill and his commitment to the professionalization of the publically-owned media in Zambia,” Bethel McKenzie said. “We are delighted that the minister will be prioritizing the liberalization of the public media, and has no intention of attacking the Zambian Watchdog. As a long-time advocate of press freedom, we hope that the minister will work to ensure that the police, in investigating his complaint, are respectful of the press freedom elements involved in this case.”