"We'll see for ourselves on Friday," was a refrain on the lips of most journalists I met in Lusaka in mid-September, as they speculated on the health of President Michael Sata ahead of their country's opening of parliament, where the leader was due to speak.
But on September 19 only eight journalists from the state-owned newspapers, radio, and television as well as the privately owned Post were allowed into parliament's press gallery, according to news reports. The rest were directed to a press room some 300 yards from the parliamentary chamber where they could only monitor events on the official television feed, prompting the Zambian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) to file an official complaint in the Lusaka High Court.
Speculation about Sata's health started as early as two years ago, and media reported the president had gone for medical treatment to India (July 2012) and Israel (June 2014). In May this year, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services denied claims that the president was not well, saying such statements were "outlandish and unsubstantiated." Concerns about his health intensified following his failure to speak at the United Nations General Assembly this month, and the truth is now out. Sata died in a London hospital on October 28.
Given the ruling Patriotic Front's broken electoral promises of a new constitution and a freedom of information act, the lack of transparency about their leader's health and the antagonism towards those who asked questions is perhaps not surprising. For those hoping for change in the media environment it has been a long wait with little reward.
When Sata took office in 2011 he was heralded as a president who could bring welcome change, but on his watch at least four journalists have faced criminal charges, three websites have been blocked, and community radio stations airing opposition voices regularly have to fend off threats and attacks from political cadres who object to what is being said on air. There is no sign of the much-anticipated access to information law being passed soon, nor of the new constitution.
In addition to the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation's (ZNBC) national and regional radio services, there are at least 20 community, commercial, and religious stations on air, according to UNESCO. However, none of these independent stations broadcasts nationally; they are confined to the capital or other urban areas. When Permanent Secretary of Information and Broadcasting Emmanuel Mwamba granted national licenses to two popular commercial stations, Qfm and Radio Phoenix, in December 2013, the move was slapped down by Sata, who fired Mwamba shortly thereafter.
Notwithstanding the blocking of websites and harassment of community radio stations, the biggest gains for media freedom have been in broadcasting and online, says former veteran journalist and founder of the now defunct independent newspaper Today, Masautso Phiri. Referring to the interactive nature of radio and the growing number of community-based stations, Phiri told me that radio has allowed people to speak out. "We have demystified broadcasting, at least people can now talk. The battle between the government and radio stations is always over live programs."
Indeed, the battle was in full force the day I arrived in Lusaka. On Monday September 15, cadres of the ruling Patriotic Front arrived at Breeze FM, an independent station in Chipata, a bustling town near Zambia's eastern border with Malawi, and threatened to beat up the news editor of following remarks made during a morning debate program about the party's poor results in a recent by-election. The event was reported three days later in the privately-owned Post newspaper, which included unequivocal condemnation from civil society activists as well as provincial government officials. News editor Samuel Ndlovu told me that the cadres accused Breeze FM of being biased against them and that when his colleagues tried to reason with the would-be assailants, the cadres threatened to beat them up too if the station carried any "negative" broadcasts in the future. Breeze FM filed a complaint with the police.
In March, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Mwansa Kapeya warned Radio Mano, a community station in Kasama in the Northern Province, to ensure that its content was "professional" and not "inflammatory"--otherwise he would revoke its license. In April, ruling party thugs raided Sun FM in Ndola in the Copperbelt Province demanding an end to an interview with opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, according to news reports. A few weeks later, PF Secretary-General Wynter Kabimba, speaking on another radio station, denied that PF members had threatened Hichilema, claiming rather that "ordinary citizens" angry at his criticism of President Sata had attacked the station. Also in April, the government said community stations should repeat the news bulletins of the state-owned ZNBC, according to news reports. There are numerous examples of thugs harassing community media in previous years too.
Despite being firmly under state control, the ZNBC has begun to be more balanced in its reporting, says the former chairperson of the Zambia chapter of MISA, Henry Kabwe, pointing to the willingness of its current head to respond to complaints and include opposition voices in its broadcasts. But Kabwe also raises the threat posed by party cadres. "Every party has them--they're used to attack the media and don't know the meaning of press freedom," he told me. A lecturer in the department of mass communications at the University of Zambia (UNZA), Rose Nyondo, is also critical of the vigilante behavior of party cadres. "They do not represent the information ministry, they're not elected members of parliament, they have no status in society, but they storm radio stations and threaten to close them if they don't like what's being said on air," she told me.
The student radio station at the national university has also come under attack from the government. Its transmitter footprint was reduced from 1,000 watts to 260 watts in 2012, but currently the station can be heard within a radius of about 30 kilometers (20 miles), according to the station manager, Macpherson Mutale. He said a Friday evening program organized by the students' union that brought in different political parties for two hours to state their position on certain policies has been stopped on government orders. Mutale told me that in May, the information minister instructed UNZA's campus station to cease any discussion of politics on air. "We explained that we don't air political programs, but that we hold discussion forums with students," Mutale said, adding that their plea fell on deaf ears. "Right now any debate is a problem and we've been told we cannot invite any politicians on air."
Subsequent to my visit, Minister of Youth and Sport Chishimba Kambwili stormed the UNZA radio studios, according to news reports, claiming that the station was sponsored by his enemies and threatening to fire student hosts. Discussions are ongoing at UNZA about who may be invited on air and what procedures to follow.
Although Internet costs are high and access is limited, the online space is where some of the most robust news reporting and commentary can be found. In 2013 the government repeatedly blocked two news websites, the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports, and continued to threaten these sites in 2014 when the Watchdog published a copy of the draft new constitution which the government had refused to release. In response, the sites moved their content to Facebook, where the Zambian Watchdog now has more than 229,000 likes and Zambia Reports more than 142,000. After threatening to shut down social media in Zambia in January 2014, Sata created his own Facebook page, which garnered more than 107,900 likes. More Zambians are expected to gain access to the Internet through projects such as Facebook's Internet.org initiative, which announced recently it will provide free access via certain cellphone networks in Zambia.
Veteran former journalist Phiri says of the websites that have been a thorn in government's flesh: "They have to be defended ... the more news the better." He added, with a laugh, "At least then we have something that the government has to deny."
The editors and contributors of Zambian Watchdog work anonymously for their own security, according to its website. Some journalists whom the government suspects of being involved have paid a high price. I met with three journalists who have been defending themselves against a slew of charges over the past 12 months. Clayson Hamasaka, Thomas Zgambo and Wilson Pondamali have been charged with a range of offences from possession of pornography, to theft of a library book, to sedition. The effect has been to tie them up in court, drain their finances, and keep them out of work--and to send a chilling message to other critical journalists.
Hamasaka, the former head of media studies at Evelyn Hone College who was fired from his job in 2012, is contesting charges of possessing pornography on his laptop. Pondamali has been acquitted of all four of the charges brought against him since July 2013--theft of a library book, possession of military stores, attempted escape from custody, and malicious damage to a police vehicle--but he says that as a freelancer, it has been difficult to do any work to earn an income during this period.
Pondamali told me just days before he was acquitted on the final charge against him that he feared if he lost the case he would be sentenced to jail. "They are determined to give me a custodial sentence to stop me from working and to create a state of fear in the minds of journalists," he said. However, he was adamant about continuing his work as a journalist. "My role is to disseminate information, I'm not a PR agent for the government. That's the price I'm paying, that's the cost."
Thomas Zagambo says the charge of sedition brought against him has been adjourned "indefinitely," but that he is fighting a charge of possession of pornography on his laptop, a charge he denies. He has to report to police headquarters every Friday and his passport is being withheld. "Who can employ you in this situation?" he says. "I'm living off handouts."
The attacks on the media are part of a larger malaise in Zambian society, according to Zagambo, who says, "Civil society has gone to sleep." This criticism is echoed by civil society activist and project coordinator of the Zambia Community Health Initiative, Casco Mubanga. "People wanted a change of government in 2011 and civil society had high expectations of the Patriotic Front. But people are still shocked at what has happened--the restrictions on civil society."
While in opposition, the Patriotic Front campaigned against the NGO Act of 2009, which compelled NGOs to register with a central authority and prohibited those NGOs not registered from operating. Parliament passed the law in January 2011. However once in power, the PF made no effort to change it, although in the face of widespread protest it extended the deadline for registration numerous times. In June this year the Zambian Ministry of Community Development wrote to diplomatic missions and aid agencies, instructing them to work with only those NGOs that were registered under the NGO Act, according to news reports that obtained copies of the letter. The letter did not spell out consequences for donors which did not comply.
"Change has to start with us, the practitioners," says Zgambo. "We have to push for these things, we must be professional." Phiri agrees, arguing that elements of the media, through not guarding their credibility and integrity, have been "an enemy" to Zambians and to freedom of expression. "Investigative journalism has died--it's been dead since the 1990s," he says. "These days you read The Post [privately owned] and the government newspapers and the news is the same."
With Guy Scott at the helm as caretaker president and elections scheduled within 90 days, we will soon know whether Zambians are disillusioned by the Patriotic Front's broken promises and lack of media reform or if they will give the party one more chance. In recent months, factions have already been jostling for ascendancy in the party. A free and independent media offering space and airtime to all parties will be needed now more than ever.