A report by two international media bodies has found that Zambia’s democracy faces a threat and challenges due to the violations on the media perpetuated between 2015 and 2016. The report found that media practitioners, journalists, cartoonists, and rights activists in Zambia face grave systemic and legal challenges perpetuated by the ruling party and government and its organs such as IBA.
International Media Support (IMS) and Article 19, in their January 2017 report say that media freedoms reduced after incumbent Edgar Lungu’s victory in the highly contested 2016 elections which witnessed violence and killings. The two international organisations said Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) played a destructive role in the years under review and that The closure of The Post newspaper has dented Zambia’s media and freedom of expression standing.
The report states that Media practitioners, journalists and human rights activists face growing systemic and legal challenges which include the Independent Broadcasting – IBA Act, ZNBC Act, lack of comprehensive access to information law, and retention of criminal defamation.
‘Media workers, especially in countryside have been found to be working in an environment under constant pressure from local authorities and security agencies, with selective and arbitrary application of laws, according to the report.
The report found that the IBA had discretionary powers to regulate private media while leaving state owned remain unregulated. ‘The IBA itself has no legal protection thereby making the opaque regulatory structure susceptible to political influence and manipulation’. Furthermore the IBA doesn’t follow procedure when dealing with independent broadcasters, as was witnessed in the suspension of licenses for Muvi TV, Komboni FM and Itezhitezhi radio stations.
In an effort to punish the perceived critic media and reward the ‘user friendly’ broadcasters, advertising by government was selective, and this in turn compromises editorial position. The government has maintained a stronghold on state owned media with no signs of making them to be public media and operate as such while on the other hand there was frosty relationship between mainstream media and the government.
“Frosty state of relationship between the mainstream media and the government is not conducive for the practice of professional, independent and unfettered journalism. It limits engagement on improving the media operating environment, especially media policy reforms and a media focused on addressing public access to information needs,” reads the report in part.
The media continued to operate in a state of fear if closure and therefore creating self censorship to please government, a move perceived as not healthy to the growth of democracy. Despite progressive constitutional provisions guaranteeing freedom of expression, a number of retrogressive laws and policies infringe their protection as evidenced by the government crack down on voice of dissent and on media keen to provide a neutral platform and hold government accountable.
The two organisations expressed views that media policy issues are best addressed within the internationally accepted principles of media rights and freedoms as opposed to leaving them in the control of non state actors, political party cadres, security wings which were all operating outside the framework of observing and respecting media rights.
There was also multiple interference by the state on Muvi TV as seen by the Attorney General’s attempt to stop the radio station from broadcasting election results as they were being announced by the Electoral Commission of Zambia ECZ but the TV station argued that it was not declaring winners but merely conveying what ECZ were announcing. The station was further directed by IBA to remove certain campaign adverts for the opposition even without any declaration of who the complainant was, as prescribed under the IBA Act. This demonstrated the unseen hand controlling the organisation.
Police were toothless in protecting media houses from the wrath of ruling party cadres as they either arrived late or just couldn’t do anything at all. Petauke Explorers Radio, Radio Icengelo and Breeze FM were some of the radio stations that faced attacks while police watched helplessly.
Zambia’s media and Freedom of expression standing has been heavily dented by the closure of the leading independent publication ‘The Post’, under the disguise of failing to meet tax obligations. This arbitrary action was seen to be politically motivated because there was ab opportunity to leave the newspaper operating while being pursued for the statutory obligations.
“IMS and Article 19 maintain that authorities had the opportunity to seek an amicable forward that would have kept the paper on the street while legal processes tied to its tax obligations were underway,” reads the report.
Online journalism was another sector that was under threat as most journalists perceived to be critic had their homes searched and their gadgets confiscated and never returned. To perpetuate this, government colluded with some mobile telecommunications company to sniff what the journalists were doing.
In some cases their conversations were either collected by police and used against them in court or diverted, which was an act of violation to their right of privacy and professional rights.
The report stated that these threats led to the blocking of the popular independent site ‘The Zambian Watchdog and that the threats have the capacity to hinder the country’s growth and usage of ICT.
Deliberately, some online journalists had become the black sheep of the profession and colleagues avoiding associating with them.
In the recommendations of the six page report, the two organisations have urged government to encourage and facilitate an amicable settlement with The Post, and an end to attacks on online journalists while all the spurious allegations must be dropped and that any seized equipment be returned.
The organisations have further recommended that the illegal privy into the personal information of journalists be stopped. The culprits in this and the case of assault on Komboni FM chief executive officer Lesa Kasoma Nyirenda be punished after an investigation.
Police have also been called to ensure the safety of media organisations. With clearly defined roles, the IBA must be granted protection and adhere to their mandate and clarify the roles of agents that include police and the Zambia Information communication technology authority – ZICTA.
The assessment was carried by interviewing media advocates, media practitioners, journalists and Human rights activists as well as some government agencies.