Attacks on the Press 2009: Zambia

Top Developments
• Ruling party supporters behind assaults against journalists.
• Government wages politicized prosecutions against The Post.

Key Statistic
400: Estimated turnout at a demonstration protesting anti-press attacks.

Press freedom deteriorated in the first full year of Rupiah Banda’s presidency. Tensions mounted between Banda’s government and the leading independent daily The Post. Politicized criminal charges were leveled at Post staff members concerning the circulation of photos that Banda labeled “obscene” but others saw as a shocking look at a government health-care problem. Ruling party supporters were tied to a series of attacks against The Post and other journalists.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
In African hot spots,
journalists forced into exile

Country Summaries
Other developments

CPJ documented seven cases in which supporters of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) harassed or beat Post reporters while they worked. The Post claimed in a July report that the MMD had gone as far as assigning operatives to harass its reporters at state functions. The government sent mixed messages in response. While Banda and other officials condemned the attacks in one breath, they appeared to encourage hostility toward The Post in the next. “The Post newspaper is reaping what it sowed because you cannot have a newspaper that reports negatively about the republican president most of the time,” Information Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha said at a May press conference.

The attacks targeted a range of media employees. A Post vendor, Deaven Mwanamwale, was assaulted and his papers were confiscated in May in Solwezi, capital of North Western province, the newspaper reported. In July, MMD supporters assaulted reporters for The Post and the state-run Times of Zambia who were at Lusaka International Airport to cover a presidential trip to Uganda, according to news accounts and the Zambian Union of Journalists.

Roughly 400 journalists, civil society members, and students gathered the next month at Olympia Park in the capital, Lusaka, to protest the violence, said Henry Kabwe, Zambia chairman of the Media Institute of Southern Africa. Vice President George Kunda assured the gathering that the assailants would be prosecuted, according to local journalists. Later that month, MMD Lusaka Youth Chairman Chris Chalwe was arrested on charges related to the airport assault. The case was pending in late year.

Banda, a government veteran and former vice president, succeeded President Levy Mwanawasa, who died of a stroke in August 2008. Banda went on to win election in his own right in October 2008, but his initial months in office were marked by animosity toward the press. Banda appeared to take particular offense to coverage in The Post. In February, addressing an MMD function, Banda claimed the daily was acting as an opposition movement, according to local news reports. “The Post newspaper has attacked me from the time you chose me as your presidential candidate,” he was quoted as saying.

Banda’s government took a broader swipe at press freedom in early year, announcing that it would give press representatives six months to set up a self-regulatory body or it would draft a media regulation bill with unspecified provisions. A group of state and private media representatives told the government it would draft a self-regulatory plan but would need considerably more time, Kabwe said. The issue was pending in late year.

Other, progressive legislation was stalled. The Independent Broadcasting Authority Act, which would create an independent broadcast regulator, and the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (Amendment) Act, which would convert the state-run broadcasting company into an independent public broadcaster, were passed by parliament in 2002 but never implemented. The Media Institute of Southern Africa and journalists called on the government to follow through on the legislation, and urged parliament to act on a freedom of information bill that was introduced several years ago.

State-run media dominate in Zambia. The country has three dailies—two state-owned and one independent—and three private weeklies. The broadcasting industry has expanded, but the state-run Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation dominates the market due to its superior signal, local journalists told CPJ. Kabwe said the government typically places strict signal limitations on broadcast licenses. Five private TV stations broadcast from the capital but their reach is limited. Roughly 30 local and community radio stations dot the countryside, but Radio Christian Voice and the state broadcaster have dominant signals. In September, the Information Ministry denied a request from the private station Phoenix FM to stream its broadcasts online.

In November, a Lusaka magistrate acquitted Post News Editor Chansa Kabwela on baseless obscenity charges in a case that drew international attention. Kabwela had been arrested in June after circulating unpublished photographs of a woman giving birth without medical aid outside the University Teaching Hospital, which was involved in a health care worker strike at the time, the newspaper reported.

Kabwela sent the photos to the vice president, the minister of health, the cabinet secretary, the archbishop of Lusaka, and two civil society groups, along with a letter urging that the strike be settled. After learning of the photos, Banda denounced them as pornography and said, “Shame on you, photographer, who took pictures of our mothers naked.” 

The photos had been taken by the woman’s husband, who gave them to The Post because he believed what had happened should not occur again, according to Sam Mujida, the paper’s deputy manager. Mujida said that editors had decided that the pictures were too graphic for publication but that it was important to raise awareness among government and civic leaders about the human impact of the strike. The infant died shortly after birth, according to news accounts.

In a November interview with CPJ, Kabwela called the acquittal a vindication. “I’ve been demonized as if I was insensitive to issues of culture and privacy,” she said, adding that she was gratified by “overwhelming support” from domestic and international audiences. The outpouring included Facebook support groups that attracted several hundred backers.

The Post faced legal harassment on a related front. A magistrate charged Fred M’membe, the paper’s editor-in-chief and a 1995 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, with contempt of court in connection with an August opinion piece about the Kabwela case, according to defense lawyer Remmy Mainsa. A U.S.-based contributor, Cornell University law professor Muna Nduko, had criticized the prosecution in the opinion piece. M’membe pleaded not guilty, and the case was pending in late year.