By Chanda Chisala
There have been reports that the Zambian government is planning to start snooping on internet and email communications of journalists, especially those who write for web sites that are critical of government. Rather than targeting evil people like terrorists, as a more civilized nation would do, their target are journalists who write things that they do not like. If this report is accurate, then the PF government has now descended to the level where they cannot be rescued or reasoned with; all hope of civility is gone. It means that they have decided to sacrifice all the little steps we have made so far (since 1991) of trying to become a free, democratic society among civilized nations and have chosen to return to where we were before we began. It means they are not only exercising strong-handed control in economics (price controls, wage controls, etc), but they have dangerously extended such strong-handed control to politics (media and opposition suppression). We are officially back to the days of Kenneth Kaunda. That’s a shame.
What is very difficult to understand about African politicians is just what mental process they go through when setting their priorities. How does a country have hospitals that even run out of oxygen for weeks surely be focusing on “sorting out” political opponents and small, critical journalists and bloggers? How can a president who is serious spend even one minute worrying about journalists or their insults when people all around him are actually dying from serious issues that are easily avoidable? Can insults compare with diseases that people are suffering from? How does someone sleep at night after choosing that priority?
Unfortunately, president Michael Sata has always been quite paranoid about journalists, for almost all his political career. He has always worried too much about what journalists say about him, even way before he became head of state in 2011, and he has tried all kinds of tactics to silence them (especially when he was part of the then ruling party, the MMD), whether through legal channels or not. We thought that perhaps his time in the opposition, facing such unfair persecution on the hands of the ruling party when he criticized them, would make him change his own attitude to journalists or opposition critics. We thought he had developed a sympathy for those who languish outside power, giving voice to the many voiceless. We were wrong: he is still as paranoid as he was before he became an opposition politician, and he has decided to go further than any other president since former dictator Kenneth Kaunda in suppressing independent media. The very fact that he has broken with Zambia’s presidential tradition by having no press conferences to answer questions confirms his incurable fear of journalists and their tendency to bravely question authority.
Thus since he became president, it is clear that he has had a deliberate strategy of silencing all such independent questioning voices, especially by giving them some kinds of rewards before they could switch on their critical minds. For example, many of the sharpest Journalists who were working at the ever-critical Post newspaper have been given jobs either in embassies, at State House or at some state parastatals, thus making this legendary newspaper to become quite deficient in its intellectual and moral capital.
Former Managing Editor of the Post, Amos Malupenga, is now a Permanent Secretary in the Sata Government at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Forgetting all the persecution and insults the Post has endured over the years (like being called a “gutter tabloid”), Mr. Malupenga has suddenly become a derisive critic of internet blogs, using the exact same language and analogies to filth (“dirty water”). Despite the fact that the Post was always accused of having false news (and even dragged to court many times to intimidate them – including by none other than Michael Sata), Mr Malupenga is now singing the same song accusing critical media of the same things. All of a sudden, he prefers an orderly “credible” media and disparages one that works with ingenuity and can sometimes get facts wrong in their efforts to find truth, as most blogs do due to lack of resources – the same way the Post once was when it had to fight the powers with very limited resources. It’s amazing what a little power can do to the souls of otherwise good men.
George Chellah from the Post is now Sata’s zealous spokesman. The same dismissive attitude he suffered with his friends at the Post when they would offer criticism to the government is now what he is dishing to opposition critics of the president. All of a sudden, everyone is dull, unless they support the big man in state house.(The humble attitude we hoped for is nowhere to be seen; the monopoly of wisdom is suddenly theirs, and despite having practically no experience achieving anything important, they feel they now have the ability to dismissively instruct much more experienced people who have spent more years in effective management and leadership – about “governance”.)
The gallant Post photo-journalist who became quite world famous for embarrassing the Banda administration with photos exposing their incompetence in the health sector, Chansa Kawbwela, is now working for Sata at the Malawian embassy. Sending such potentially troublesome voices to embassies far away was an art perfected by Kenneth Kaunda. Miss Kabwela’s admirable investigative journalism skills have now taken an eternal break.
And there are many others. Former radio entrepreneur and journalist, Joe Chilaizya, who was totally fearless, objective and independent no matter whom he was interviewing on his popular radio station, is now working for Sata at the embassy in China. He was first given a job as head of ZNBC, but he allowed journalists there to report freely against government officials if they wished, and to take no orders from politicians in power. He was quickly removed and sent far away across oceans.
Veteran journalist Frank Mutibila, who was also known for his brave and incisive questions into ineffective government programs through his creative television and radio shows, is now an ambassador to Italy. The highly original journalist economist Chibamba Kanyama, who had already started his courageous public criticism of Sata’s economic policies as soon as he settled in power, has been given a well-perked job as the Director General of the state-owned ZNBC. Even Father Frank Bwalya, who showed a rare level of independent thinking when he turned against the Sata government after working with them to de-campaign the former Banda regime, was quickly given a job on a parastatal board as soon as he started appearing on radio to criticize Sata’s broken promises.
The list is endless. And the pattern is clear to everyone except the president’s mindless sycophants who go around different blogs and social media defending everything Sata does without dedicating a single brain cell to independent critical thinking.
To everyone else, it is too obvious why these smart, fearless and honest journalists were given these well-paying jobs. Ever since their appointments, none of these brave soldiers of the pen has publicly raised a finger or tongue against the Sata government. They can’t. Although they remain good people at heart, they have been silenced by the requirement of their jobs to be loyal to their “appointing authority.”
And this is not where the Sata strategy of silencing critical journalists ends. Those who can be bought with favors will be bought; those who can’t will be fought. Aggressively.
Journalist Chanda Chimba has been dragged into courts for simply making documentaries that expressed his opinions about Michael Sata (before he became president) and his political alliances. These were opinions built around historical facts that Chimba researched from news archives. That’s not a crime. Some journalists are reporters, some express strong opinions, and some do both. Chimba’s opinions were very strong and maybe even mixed with extreme and somewhat confused insinuations, but they were still just opinions. Maybe he was even paid by the then ruling MMD to express those opinions, but that still doesn’t matter: they were just his opinions. His thoughts.
American political parties always pay people to make attack ads, vilifying documentaries or to write articles against their opponent, some of them expressing very incendiary opinions.If the American government arrested everyone who expressed unflattering opinions against the president or his colleagues, there would not be enough jails to put them all. A free society is simply that: it is free.
If some people believe and write that Obama is a lying Muslim fundamentalist who has faked his birth certificate, faked his results at university, faked his Christian faith, and even faked the identity of his “real” father, etc so that he could become president and achieve his secret goal of destroying America … that’s still just their opinion! No one will arrest them for an opinion (especially about such a public figure), no matter how extreme or insulting to the president it is. And yet people in Zambia are arrested for merely likening the president to a proverbial hyena or, in the case of Chimba, for basically likening him to a snake (by playing with his nickname “King Cobra.”) We would have expected that with so many journalists appointed in Sata’s government, they would defend their beloved profession on principle, even if they disagree with a particular journalist’s opinions.
A president who wants to see journalists or other critics in court or jail for “insulting” him is simply a thin-skinned coward who has no character or principles and has no business being president of any country.
But what is really annoying and disturbing is why they should be so occupied with fixing or silencing all such critical journalists – either by buying their silence with jobs, harassing them in courts, or threatening to close down their web sites – when the poor people around them are dying every day due to bad hospitals, bad roads, incompetent police officers, dysfunctional fire services, etc. Why should they be worried about mere words that are being said or written about them when the people who elected them have much bigger life and death problems? You’re worried about facing a journalist’s insulting words, when there are people who are worrying about what they will do with their life-threatening illnesses since they do not share your privilege of flying out to a hospital in Europe? Within 90 days he had already constructed and executed a master plan of dismantling independent critical media and journalism, while achieving practically nothing in the promises he actually made.
Perhaps there is just a curse on African countries: will we ever be led by people who have any character or even just a modicum of common sense?
The original article was published on Zambia Online here