Attacks on the Press 2001: Zambia

Incumbent president Frederick Chiluba failed to convince Zambians that he should be allowed to run for an unconstitutional third term in the December 2001 general elections. Political controversies surrounding the elections dominated media headlines in Zambia all year long. Mounting tensions between the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) and the opposition were mirrored in the editorial polarization of state and private media.

As the government tightened its control over state media in the run-up to the elections, the independent press became more strident in its criticism of the MMD and incurred the wrath of ruling party officials. Increased MMD oversight over government media was heralded by the May 9 appointment of Vernon Mwaanga as minister of information and broadcasting services. Mwaanga took office claiming to be unaware of any political interference in state media.

Less than two weeks later, Mwaanga dissolved the boards of the state-funded Times of Zambia, the Zambia Daily Mail, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), and the Zambia Printing Company, ostensibly to “restore the sense of responsibility and accountable journalism.”

In late June, Mwaanga announced that he would “not tolerate any nonsense from the private media from now onwards.” He accused independent journalists of “unprofessional reporting, gutter reporting and rumor mongering.” In mid-August, Mwaanga ordered the closure of Radio Phoenix, the country’s most popular independent broadcaster. Though Mwaanga claimed that the station was closed for failing to pay back taxes, journalists said the tax arrears were a pretext to keep critics of the government from airing their views on the station’s live call-in programs. Radio Phoenix was allowed back on the air in late September.

The Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), the country’s most important media outlet, was also the most heavily criticized state media organization. In late August, the fear of giving the opposition a platform apparently prompted the ZNBC to cancel a live debate designed to educate voters on election issues. The debate was sponsored by Coalition 2001, a consortium of civil society groups. The debate was only aired after the sponsor obtained a court injunction against the ZNBC.

The ZNBC successfully pulled the plug on a live televised debate among the presidential candidates on the eve of elections. Zambian sources believe the debate was cancelled because of MMD fears that their candidate, Levi Mwanawasa, would not perform well. Though the debate sponsors obtained an injunction preventing the ZNBC from interfering with the broadcast, the station still aired an interview with President Chiluba in its place.

Zambia’s independent media played a major role in mobilizing public opposition to President Chiluba’s bid for a third term by keeping the issue at center stage until Chiluba was forced to withdraw his candidacy.

Ruling party cadres made every attempt to silence Chiluba’s critics. In early April, the Zambia Daily Mail threatened legal action against third-term opponents who had reprinted and circulated thousands of copies of a 1998 article from the paper’s sister publication, the Sunday Mail. The article quoted Chiluba urging fellow party members to look for his successor, as he would not run for another term in office.

At around the same time, the opposition United Party for National Development began running an ad on Radio Phoenix re-playing a 1996 interview with Chiluba in which he pledged to honor the constitution and leave office after his second term. And in May, the offices of the Catholic Church-owned Radio Icengelo were set ablaze. Station staff suspected that the arson attack was in reprisal for their opposition to a Chiluba third term.

Authorities were particularly sensitive to press coverage of rampant official corruption. In late July, two editors of the Zambia Daily Mail were suspended for six months after an article in the paper described Home Affairs Minister Peter Machungwa, who was being investigated for corruption and abuse of office, as “disgraced.” Post editor Fred M’membe, reporter Bivan Saluseki, and two former MMD politicians were charged with “defaming the Head of State” after the fiercely anti-Chiluba newspaper alleged that the president was involved in a US$4 million graft scheme.

Despite all the harassment, journalists at the Post and Monitor could take some consolation in the fact that the heated political climate increased their sales, which had been declining for years. (Because of their critical stance toward the government, neither publication receives state advertising.)

One positive development last year was the publication of a draft of the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act. The act is designed to allow the media and the public efficient access to public documents. Though the government invited comments, there was no movement on the draft by year’s end. In a related development, the National Assembly acquired a radio transmitter in late October, allowing for the live broadcast of parliamentary debates.

May 27

Radio Icengelo

A fire destroyed parts of the Catholic Church-owned Radio Icengelo, consuming official documents, office equipment, and furniture, and disrupted the station’s electricity supply. The station was back on the air two days later, on May 29.

Police investigations found that the fire was set deliberately. Radio Icengelo staffers suspect that the arson was in retaliation for Radio Icengelo’s opposition to Zambian president Frederick Chiluba’s bid for an unconstitutional third term.

The fire followed a number of recent attacks on Father Vas Miha, a member of the radio station’s administration; the stoning of another Radio Icengelo administrator, Father Daka, by government cadres who surrounded his residence; and repeated telephone threats to “silence the radio station.”

July 9

Ernest Mwape, The Post

Mwape, a free-lance journalist and correspondent for The Post newspaper, was arrested on July 9 and charged with criminal libel by police in Mpika, a town in the northern province of Zambia.

His arrest stemmed from a story in the June 6 edition of The Post, in which Mwape reported that Mpika district administrator (DA) Mulenga Sapuni had reprimanded Mpika police chief Boaz Njolomba for failing to provide him with adequate police protection during a riot by secondary school students, resulting in extensive damage to Sapuni’s house and car.

According to Mwape’s article, Sapuni further criticized the police for providing security protection for the residence of the district education officer (DEO) home, even though the position of DEO is junior to that of DA.

On June 22, Mwape was picked up for questioning about the article and warned that he would be arrested after the police finished investigating. The police demanded that Mwape either apologize for the article or issue a retraction, both of which he refused to do.

Meanwhile, Njolamba denied that the events described in the article had ever taken place.

When the Zambia Independent Media Association (ZIMA) telephoned Njolamba to protest Mwape’s harassment, the officer claimed that Mwape had defamed the police, justifying a criminal libel charge.

According to the police, Mwape was arrested on July 9 and released on his own recognizance that same day. On July 12, all charges against him were dropped.

According to ZIMA, no charges were ever officially filed against Mwape. The police could not have taken the matter to court because they never obtained permission to prosecute from the Director of Public Prosecutions, as required by law. In short, the charges had no legal merit.

July 25

Bivan Saluseki, The Post
Amos Malupenga, The Post
Fred M’Membe, The Post

Saluseki, a reporter at the independent newspaper The Post, was charged with defaming the president after a July 16th story quoted opposition politician and former minister of labor Edith Nawakwi as saying that “the president allowed ministers to steal and then shared with them.”

The piece was headlined, “Chiluba is a thief, charges Nawakwi.”

Police summoned Saluseki, held him for three hours, and accused him of “defaming the president.”

On July 19, police visited The Post offices to ask Saluseki, deputy news editor Amos Malupenga, and editor Fred M’Membe to report to the police station to answer charges stemming from Saluseki’s article. M’Membe refused to cooperate, but Malupenga went to the station and recorded a statement.

On August 22, Saluseki, Nawakwi, and M’Membe were formally indicted on charges of defaming the president, which carries a maximum penalty of three years in jail. All three pleaded not guilty. The trial was set to commence on September 5 but was repeatedly postponed. The trial had not yet begun at press time.

August 2

Amos Malupenga, The Post

Police issued a “warn and caution” statement to Amos Malupenga, the deputy news editor of The Post, for an article in that day’s edition in which he accused President Frederick Chiluba of having “stolen and shattered to pieces Zambia’s dream.” The article quoted critical statements about Chiluba from former deputy finance minister Newton Ng’uni, who was also “warned and cautioned.”

On August 9, Zambia’s director of public prosecutions, Mukelebai Mukelebai, ordered police to halt criminal proceedings against Malupenga and Ng’uni. Mukelebai found that Malupenga’s article was not defamatory but merely expressed a “personal political opinion,” Zambian sources said.

Malupenga had already been “warned and cautioned” two months earlier over an article quoting a former MMD official who criticized some of Chiluba’s policies.

August 21

Fred M’membe, The Post

M’membe, editor-in-chief of the independent Zambian daily The Post, was arrested and charged with criminal defamation of the head of state, an offense under Article 69 of Zambia’s Penal Code. He was released after posting bail.

The charges stemmed from an article and an editorial in the August 17 edition of The Post. Both alleged that President Frederick Chiluba was involved in a US$4 million graft scheme.

Dipak Patel, a member of the opposition party Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD) who was quoted in the article, was charged along with M’membe.

Police arrested and charged M’membe when he arrived at the Lusaka Central Police Station in response to a summons that his lawyer, Mutembo N’Chito, had received the previous day.

M’membe was accompanied by Post reporter Bivan Saluseki and FDD politician Edith Nawakwi, who had already been charged with defaming the president over a July Post article that also accused President Chiluba and members of his cabinet being involved in various graft schemes.

Police had originally arrested and charged M’membe on August 18, but a magistrate ordered the editor released a few hours later on a technicality.

Police went to M’membe’s home seeking to re-arrest him that same evening, but he was out of town attending a family funeral, according to sources at The Post. Zambian sources said police fired shots in the vicinity of the editor’s house in order to frighten his children.

M’membe appeared in court on August 22 in connection with the charges against Saluseki and Nawakwi. He was indicted along with the other two on the same charges. CPJ issued an alert about the case on August 21.

More than 2,000 Zambians in Lusaka signed a petition protesting the legal action against M’membe and Patel. Another hearing was scheduled for January 2002, but no additional information on the case was available at press time.

Coalition 2001

The state-owned Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) prevented the broadcast of a live television program, titled “Defining Quality Leadership,” which had been scheduled to air at 9:00 p.m. that evening.

The program, one of a 13-part series on election issues, was sponsored by Coalition 2001, a group of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). All 13 parts, scheduled to air in advance of the December 27 general elections, were to provide viewers with information on the electoral process and party platforms.

The August 27 show was to feature five panelists, including three NGO representatives and two politicians: Dr. Akashambatwa Mbikusita Lewanika, former president of the Agenda for Zambia Party and Love Mtesa, publicity secretary for the United Party for National Development.

According to Ngande Mwanajiti, chairman of the NGO Afronet, shortly before the program was to begin, ZNBC director of programs Mwansa Kapeya canceled the broadcast, saying that the show’s topic should be changed. Kapeya later informed Mwanajiti that the program would air on September 1 only if the two politicians were excluded from the panel.

Mwanajiti and the coalition refused to exclude Lewanika and Mtesa, and the program was hastily canceled.

On September 3, the Lusaka High Court granted an injunction restraining ZNBC from interfering with the program, which finally aired on September 10.

November 10

Kunda Kunda, Radio Icengelo
Radio Icengelo

Radio announcer Kunda was attacked by a mob of nearly 30 ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) supporters during a live broadcast.

Kunda, an announcer at the Catholic Church-owned Radio Icengelo in the town of Kitwe, was interviewing Michael Sata, a former government minister and ex-national secretary of the MMD who is now president of the opposition Patriotic Front.

During the interview, Sata criticized then-president Frederick Chiluba’s government. Following his remarks, a crowd of angry MMD supporters forced their way past a guard and into the station’s studio, where they assaulted Kunda, Sata, and an associate. Police then arrived on the scene and ended the fracas.

During their assault, the MMD assailants damaged station equipment worth about 1.5 million kwachas (US$400), according to local sources. Sata and the other two victims were treated at a local hospital.