AS TENSIONS WITH NEIGHBORING ANGOLA MOUNTED and politicians maneuvered to prepare for elections in 2001, Zambian journalists faced censorship, physical assault by police, and a host of repressive media laws.
The most egregious attack on the independent press during the year was the trial of eleven journalists from the Lusaka daily The Post on charges of espionage. The journalists were originally arrested and charged in March 1999, for a report alleging that Zambia’s army could not withstand an attack from Angola. On August 18, 2000, all of them were acquitted with the exception of editor Fred M’membe, winner of a 1995 CPJ International Press Freedom Award. On December 21, the Lusaka High Court finally acquitted M’membe in a ruling that sharply criticized the government’s abuse of the 1969 State Security Act, under which the journalists were prosecuted.
The Post is the country’s leading independent newspaper, and it continued to be a prime target of harassment. At year’s end, there were some 80 libel cases pending against the paper (most had been dragging through the courts for years). In addition, Zambian journalists believe that frequent hostile statements aimed at The Post by officials of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) helped encourage a September 4 arson attack on the paper’s offices.
MMD legislators and cabinet ministers also launched vocal attacks on other journalists, often threatening reprisals for reporting that exposed government incompetence. On several occasions, journalists from private news organizations such as The Post, The Monitor, Radio Phoenix, and The National Mirror were barred from covering important press conferences and other public events.
During a February 17 parliamentary debate, Information Minister Newstead Zimba accused Zambian journalists of abusing press freedom. Zimba also attacked the Zambia Independent Media Association (ZIMA) and the Inter-African Network for Human Rights and Development (AFRONET), two civil society groups that had accused his ministry of unfairly silencing “Let the People Speak,” a popular series on social issues that was broadcast by the private Radio Phoenix.
Despite repeated government promises to launch reforms, Zambia’s booming independent press still faced a number of restrictive press laws. Section 53 of the Penal Code effectively gives the president blanket powers to ban publications. Other statutes prescribe prison sentences for “false reporting,” insulting the president, sedition, and defamation. And journalists can still be jailed, under the notorious Parliamentary and Ministerial Code of Conduct Act, for refusing to disclose confidential sources of information.
Ahead of the 2001 elections, opposition parties lashed out at the state media, which has been overtly slanting information to benefit the MMD government. The ruling party also controls a number of radio stations and newspapers, including two of the country’s largest publications, The Times of Zambia and The Zambia Daily Mail.
Kelvin Shimo, The Post
Bob Samakayi, an official from the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), prevented Shimo, a reporter for the independent Lusaka daily The Post, from boarding a Zambian Air Force plane carrying journalists who had been invited to cover an MMD membership drive in Itezhi-tezhi, a rural town in the country’s Central Province.
Shimo alleged that Samakayi ordered him to leave after he presented press credentials that identified him as a Post reporter. The journalist said he initially refused to comply, but that Samakayi then instructed an armed sentry to keep him away from the aircraft.
Shimo is one of 11 Post journalists who faced charges of espionage for a 1999 investigative report in which the paper claimed that the Zambian armed forces could not withstand a military attack from neighboring Angola.
Rachiel Chiumya, Radio Phoenix
Kangwa Mulenga, The Monitor
Chiumya, a reporter for the privately owned Radio Phoenix, and Mulenga, a staff writer for the weekly Monitor, were roughed up by police officers, who also tried to seize their equipment.
The incident occurred while Chiumya and Mulenga were covering a demonstration by women’s-rights activists in the capital, Lusaka. Police officers attacked the reporters when they tried to interview women protesters who had gathered outside police headquarters to condemn the criminal-justice system’s inertia in a child rape and murder investigation. Chiumya and Mulenga were saved from arrest by the intervention of a police spokesperson at the scene.
Despite clear evidence of police misconduct, the two journalists did not file a complaint for fear of reprisals.
Brighton Phiri, The Post
Reporter Phiri of the private Lusaka daily The Post was barred from covering a press briefing held by Eustus Mambwe, the Zambian government’s director of civil aviation.
Each journalist present at the conference was asked to introduce himself. When Phiri identified himself as a reporter for The Post, an irate Mambwe ordered him out of the room, saying that he had received instructions not to speak to any journalists from that paper. Mambwe did not say who had given him those instructions, but members of the local independent media alleged that the orders were issued by top-ranking state officials.
Phiri is one of eleven Post journalists who faced espionage charges for a 1999 investigative report on Zambia’s military capacity. Two weeks earlier, another Post journalist was barred from covering a membership drive organized by the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (see January 1 Zambia case).
Zambian authorities allegedly pressured Radio Phoenix, a Lusaka-based private broadcaster, to cancel “Let the People Speak,” a 10-part series about a local hospital strike.
Local independent journalists claimed that the Ministry of Information had forced Radio Phoenix to cancel the series because it failed to present the government’s point of view on a labor dispute between state authorities and striking hospital staff in which more than 300 junior doctors were fired.
According to Zambian news reports, however, the Minister of Health had declined to participate in the program. Radio Phoenix general manager Elizabeth Pemba, meanwhile, insisted that the station had decided independently to cancel “Let the People Speak.” The program was reinstated on January 28.
The National Mirror
Reporters from The National Mirror, Radio Phoenix, The Post, and The Monitor, all privately owned news organizations in the capital, Kampala, were denied permission to cover a meeting between Zambian president Frederick Chiluba and his Malawian counterpart, Bakili Muluzi.
The head of Zambia Information Services (ZIS) claimed that the journalists had been excluded because of a lack of space, even though seats had been reserved for journalists from state-operated media. ZIS acting press officer Isabel Muleya later said that the barring of independent journalists from the presidential meeting was due to a last-minute change of program. Local media-rights activists charged that the move was deliberate.
Dickson Jere, Agence France-Presse, The Monitor
Jere, Zambia correspondent for Agence France-Presse and a contributor to the private weekly The Monitor, said he was threatened after reporting that Xavier Chungu, head of Zambia’s intelligence services, had been named in a UN report about the involvement of several African governments in the Angolan civil war.
Published in the March 24-30 issue of Monitor, Jere’s article was based on a March 10 United Nations report that charged several African governments, including Zambia’s, with bypassing a UN ban on aid to Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA rebel movement. In particular, the report accused Chungu of maintaining ties with a UNITA representative known to trade in illegal diamonds and firearms. Zambian president Frederick Chiluba denied the UN allegations at a press conference on March 31.
After the article appeared, Jere received anonymous telephone calls warning him of “severe repercussions” if he did not “lay off the story.” Jere claimed to have received three such threats between April 1 and April 3. Police in Lusaka launched an inquiry into the calls, but had made no progress by year’s end.
Sheikh Chifuwe, The Post
Photojournalist Chifuwe of the private Lusaka daily The Post was expelled from a press briefing by Dawson Lupunga, Zambia’s minister of community development and social welfare, who accused The Post of “negative reporting.” Lupunga’s reaction was apparently prompted by a May 19 Post editorial headlined “Lupunga’s Language,” which questioned the minister’s sanity and called for his dismissal.
In addition, Chifuwe had published an article a few days earlier in which he accused Lupunga of cursing at disabled people who opposed the government’s efforts to resettle them in special hospices.
Henry Chilufya, Radio Phoenix
Chilufya, deputy news editor for the independent station Radio Phoenix, was attacked by some 15 members of the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) while on assignment in Lusaka’s Soweto market.
Chilufya was interviewing the president of the market association for a story on alleged extortion by MMD cadres at the market when the party members assaulted him. He suffered injuries to his back and leg during the attack, his notebook was shredded, and his press identity card and tape recorder were taken. The recorder was returned, slightly damaged, after the police intervened.
Local police and Radio Phoenix reported that the attack was carried out by MMD cadres and was in reprisal for another story about extortion in the market that had aired the day before.
Angela Chishimba, Daily Mail
On Wednesday, August 30, Angela Chishimba, a reporter for the government-owned Daily Mail, was attacked by policemen while covering a student riot at the University of Zambia campus in Lusaka. When Chishimba identified herself as a journalist and displayed her press card, a police officer confiscated the card, saying that the “owner” of the card was not “beautiful.” The policeman also forced Chishimba to lie on the tarmac. She was later released.
The Daily Mail lodged an official complaint with the police. Subsequently, a police spokesman acknowledged that Chishimba had been assaulted and expressed regret over the incident.
On the night of September 3-4, the offices of the independent daily The Post were partially gutted by a fire. The fire started in the paper’s production department at around 10 p.m. on September 3 and burned past midnight, destroying about US$500,000 worth of equipment. Post special projects manager Goliath Mungonge, police, and several other local sources said they suspected arson.
The newspaper is widely known for its criticisms of the government of President Frederick Chiluba, and the fire occurred while its editor, Fred M’membe, was on trial for espionage.
Fred M’Membe, The Post
M’Membe, editor-in-chief of the Lusaka independent daily The Post, was acquitted of charges of espionage by Zambia’s High Court.
The case dates back to March 9, 1999, when police arrested M’Membe and 12 other journalists from The Post in retaliation for a lead story, entitled “Angola Worries Zambia Army, ZAF.” The article quoted unnamed senior Zambia Army and Zambia Air Force (ZAF) officers to the effect that Zambia could not withstand a military attack by Angola.
A day after the article was published, police besieged the editorial offices and the printing press of The Post, cutting off power and water supplies and trapping a number of staff inside.
By March 31, 1999, thirteen Post journalists had been arrested, charged with espionage, and released on bail. Charges against two were later dismissed, while the remaining journalists went on trial in November 1999. All pleaded not guilty.
The trial continued in 2000, and when proceedings resumed in June, CPJ protested in a letter to President Frederick Chiluba. Two months later, on August 18, the charges against 10 of the journalists were dropped by the court, apparently on grounds that the state had failed to prove those journalists participated in writing or reporting the story.
Those acquitted on August 18 were: Brighton Phiri, Lubasi Katundu, Kelvin Shimo, Goodson Machona, Joe Kaunda, Douglas Hampande, Reuben Phiri, Macpherson Muyumba, Dickson Jere, and Liseli Kayumba.
High Court judges said the trial against editor M’Membe would continue because of a press statement he allegedly issued to Radio Phoenix acknowledging responsibility for the publication of the article. M’Membe said he issued the statement as a response to the arbitrary arrests of the other Post journalists.
The case was then adjourned on two occasions before M’Membe’s December 21 acquittal. In her closing statement, Judge Elizabeth Muyovwe said that the Zambian state had failed to prove that information included in the March 9, 1999 story was classified, and had also not proved that by publishing the article, M’Membe was spying for Angola.
Whitney Mulebela, The Monitor
Queen Kashimbo, Radio Phoenix
Government officials barred Mulebela, a reporter for the independent Lusaka daily The Monitor, and Kashimbo, a broadcast journalist with the independent station Radio Phoenix, from covering a function at State House, the residence of Zambian president Fredrick Chiluba.
The function commemorated the ninth anniversary of the day on which Zambia proclaimed itself a Christian nation. It is unclear why the two reporters were prevented from entering State House, since they had proper accreditation and an invitation from the event organizers. Other media organizations, both state-owned and private, were allowed to cover the event.
Some sources at The Monitor argued that Mulebela was barred because of a December 29 story titled “Christian Nation Declaration Meaningless.” The story, which was authored by Mulebela and another Monitor writer, quoted a clergyman and an opposition politician who criticized the government’s failure to live up to its professed Christian ideals.