Attacks on the Press 2002: Zambia

President Levy Mwanawasa was inaugurated on January 2 amid opposition charges of fraudulent elections and editorial comments in the independent press that the new head of state was the “puppet” of his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba. The election controversy, power struggles, and financial scandals in the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) dominated headlines in 2002.

Mwanawasa followed in Chiluba’s footsteps early on by taking a hard line against the press. In late January, the government banned the media and public without explanation from witnessing the election of the parliamentary speaker. Independent journalists and opposition parliamentarians suspected that officials feared coverage of the controversial vote.

Mwanawasa, whose presidency remained fragile throughout 2002 while the opposition challenged the election results, proved unwilling to tolerate disrespect. In mid-February, he pressed “defamation of the president” charges against Fred M’membe, editor-in-chief of the independent daily The Post, and Dipak Patel, an opposition Parliament member, after The Post ran an article quoting Patel calling Mwanawasa a “cabbage.” Patel’s remark referred to Mwanawasa’s alleged diminished mental capacities resulting from a near fatal car accident a decade ago.

Journalists and human rights groups persistently criticize the blatant pro-MMD bias in the state-owned media, alleging that the political opposition continues to be denied access to these organs. Opposition leader Anderson Mazoka contends that his constitutional right to free expression was violated when the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) refused to air a paid-for program in which Mazoka thanked Zambian voters after the elections. In early April, the Press Association of Zambia (PAZA) vowed to uproot what it called “pocket journalism,” or bribe-taking in exchange for favorable coverage. PAZA alleged that a group of journalists for the state-owned media had been paid in 2001 to spread political falsehoods to try to secure more MMD seats in the election.

Bribery extended to the private press as well. In late June, Reuters news agency suspended its Johannesburg-based correspondent, Buchizya Mseteka, following revelations that he had been receiving payments from Zambian intelligence services. News reports alleged that Mseteka had acted as an agent for members of the former Zambian government, used Reuters to run public relations campaigns for top African leaders, and received payments from African politicians to write positive stories about them.

Throughout 2002, Zambian journalists became entangled in MMD infighting, with Mwanawasa and his government pursuing former high-ranking officials from the
Chiluba regime for corruption, while Chiluba and his associates attempted to discredit Mwanawasa’s presidency. In early June, four journalists for the independent tabloid
The People were jailed for three weeks on defamation charges when their paper ran a story alleging that Mwanawasa was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The journalists later apologized to the president when it was discovered that Mwanawasa’s enemies
in the MMD had duped them. Also in June, youth members of the MMD seized
copies of private newspapers deemed critical of Mwanawasa from the streets of the capital, Lusaka, and then severely beat the vendors who had sold the publications.
The papers had recently carried advertisements from patrons thought to be disaffected MMD members alleging that Mwanawasa’s injuries from the car accident made him unfit to be president.

One positive development arose from the MMD’s internal battles. In mid-July, the state dropped defamation charges against The Post editor Fred M’membe, reporter Bivan Saluseki, and two opposition politicians stemming from 2001 Post articles alleging that President Chiluba had been involved in a US$4 million graft scheme. The case was dropped when the court was unable to resolve whether or not presidential immunity could keep Chiluba from testifying.

In early November, the government rejected three bills–the Freedom of Information Bill, the Independent Broadcasting Authority Bill, and the Broadcasting Bill–drafted by the Zambia Independent Media Association and opposition members of Parliament. The MMD instead promoted its own bills. Journalists criticized the government’s draft legislation, which gives Zambian security forces blanket exemptions from requests for information and allows the president to take over all broadcasters in a state of emergency.

In mid-November, the government postponed its legislation to consult with opposition members and media rights groups. Bt year’s end, Parliament had approved the Independent Broadcasting Bill and the government’s version of the Broadcasting Bill, both of which were awaiting the president’s signature. Media rights advocates said amendments to the government’s Broadcasting Bill, with allowances for a Parliament-approved ZNBC board and for the ZNBC to collect licensing fees without the intervention of the information minister, will allow the ZNBC to function more independently. The legislature suspended consideration of the Freedom of Information Bill while members debated some of its more contentious provisions.

January 24

Charles Lwiindi, free-lance

Lwiindi, a Zambian free-lance journalist, was attacked by opposition members, said sources in the capital, Lusaka. Lwiindi had gone to the home of United Party for National Development (UPND) president Anderson Mazoka to cover a meeting about the nomination of a UPND candidate for the upcoming parliamentary election of a National Assembly speaker. According to the BBC, several people at the meeting objected to Lwiindi’s presence there, threw the journalist from the premises, and then assaulted him outside the house.

On April 27, Lwiindi died in a Lusaka hospital. Police arrested three UPND members in December, including party treasurer Tiens Kahenya, and charged them with murder, alleging that Lwiindi had died from injuries sustained during the January assault. Opposition members say the charges are political and aimed at tarnishing the party. Zambian journalists also claim that the charges are dubious since medical reports show that Lwiindi died of an unrelated illness that was suspected to be malaria.

February 11

Fred M’membe, The Post

M’membe, editor-in-chief of the independent daily The Post, was detained by police for about an hour after he came to Woodlands Police Station in the capital, Lusaka, in response to a summons. When his lawyers intervened, he was released on bond and charged with “defaming the President” under Section 69 of the Penal Code.

The charges stemmed from a January 25 Post article that featured a quote from opposition Forum for Democracy and Development member of Parliament Dipak Patel, who called newly elected president Levy Mwanawasa a “cabbage.”

On February 27, Zambian director of public prosecutions Mukelebai Mukelebai ordered the charges against M’membe dropped. Zambian sources speculated that President Mwanawasa asked that the charges be withdrawn since Patel had apologized to him for the remark.

February 14

Jerry Nkwendeenda, Mazabuka Community Radio

Nkwendeenda, a reporter for the independent Mazabuka Community Radio Station, was detained by police for about 30 minutes for allegedly interfering with police business.

At around 7 p.m., Nkwendeenda saw three police officers selling mealie-meal, government-subsidized cornmeal that serves as Zambia’s staple food, outside of a shop. The journalist approached a buyer and asked why he was paying the police for food, and why the shop was open when its normal operating hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The police noticed Nkwendeenda asking questions and immediately grabbed him, took him into the shop, and confiscated his notebook. When Nkwendeenda identified himself as a reporter for the Mazabuka Community Radio Station, the police accused him of reporting “rubbish” and locked him in a small room at the back of the shop.

Earlier that day, Mazabuka Community Radio had carried a report on the sale of mealie-meal during which many callers complained of corruption in its distribution. According to Nkwendeenda, after the broadcast, the station lodged a complaint with the Mazabuka district administrator (DA) about corruption in the local distribution of mealie-meal.

While locked in the shop, Nkwendeenda phoned the DA to explain his situation. When the DA arrived shortly thereafter, two of the three police officers fled. When the DA demanded to know on what charges Nkwendeenda was being held, the remaining officer told him the journalist had interfered with police business. The DA responded that the shop was not police property, and that the sale of mealie-meal was not official police business. He then demanded the reporter’s release.

The police never filed charges against Nkwendeenda. The next day, Mazabuka Community Radio carried another report on corruption in mealie-meal sales, this time implicating the police and mentioning the incident that Nkwendeenda had witnessed.

February 24

Thomas Nsama, The Post

Nsama, a reporter with The Post, was beaten by a group of supporters from the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party while covering an MMD convention at the Mulungushi International Conference Center in the capital, Lusaka.

The MMD supporters were pushing several vehicles, including one from The Post, that were parked in the conference center’s driveway to create more room for the arrival of MMD party president and former head of state Frederick Chiluba and his entourage.

When the MMD supporters saw Nsama taking photographs of them lifting the cars, they charged at him. Before the attackers reached him, Nsama gave his camera to a photographer from the state-owned Zambia Daily Mail who ran with it to safety. The assailants then physically assaulted Nsama and left him on the ground.

Nsama said that police stationed nearby witnessed the incident and did not intervene. When the photographer later tried to report the attack at the local police station, police refused to file the complaint, claiming they were “too junior” to handle the case.

May 29

Emmanuel Chilekwa, The People
Shadreck Banda, The People
Kinsley Lweendo, The People
Jane Chirwa, The People

Chilekwa, managing editor of the independent weekly The People, went to police headquarters in response to a police “call-out” he had received the previous day and was informed that he was under investigation for defaming the president, a charge that is punishable by up to three years in prison under Article 69 of the Zambian Penal Code. The accusation stemmed from a People article alleging that President Levy Mwanawasa suffers from Parkinson’s disease and implying that the illness renders him unfit to rule.

After interrogation, Chilekwa was released. On May 31, however, police detained and interrogated Chilekwa, Banda, assistant editor at The People, and Chirwa, a student reporter working for the paper. Zambian sources say Chilekwa and Banda were both physically harassed during their arrests. All three were released later that day.

On June 5, Chilekwa, Banda, Chirwa, and Lweendo, senior reporter for The People, were arrested and charged with defaming the president. In a June 7 court hearing, they pleaded not guilty, and Judge Frank Tembo postponed ruling on whether to grant the journalists bail. According to the Media Institute of Southern Africa, on June 17, Judge Tembo denied the journalists bail, arguing that cases of “defamation of the president” had recently increased. Journalists said the ruling confirmed their suspicion of political involvement in the case, because defamation is a bailable offense, and prosecutors had not objected to bail being granted.

On June 27, a High Court judge granted the journalists bail. The four were freed later that day. On July 30, the charges against the journalists were dropped after they apologized to Mwanawasa. They admitted that they had not confirmed the story and said that the source of the article was a close associate of former president Frederick Chiluba. Mwanawasa has pushed for tough investigations into corruption allegations against Chiluba’s administration.

June 6

The Post
The People

Youth members of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) confiscated copies of the independent daily The Post and the independent weeklies The People and Today from vendors in the capital, Lusaka. The youths then beat the vendors.

The MMD cadres accused the newspapers of carrying stories that criticized President Levy Mwanawasa. On June 4, members of the group issued a warning to journalists, vendors, and media owners to stop selling newspapers that had allegedly defamed Mwanawasa, Agence France-Presse reported.

Zambian journalists said that criticism of Mwanawasa had intensified in previous weeks. Internal divisions within the MMD led some party members, representing an anti-Mwanawasa faction, to buy advertisements in the independent daily The Post questioning Mwanawasa’s mental state and his ability to lead. Four journalists from The People were arrested on June 5 and charged with defaming the president after they published an article alleging that Mwanawasa has Parkinson’s disease.