Freedom of the Press
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Despite improvements in the diversity of the media landscape over the past several years, independent media in Zambia continued to face legal harassment, physical intimidation, and the threat of statutory regulation in 2010. Freedom of speech is guaranteed in the constitution, but the relevant language can be broadly interpreted. Such guarantees were not explicitly included in a new draft constitution that was under debate during the year. Criminal libel laws, laws prohibiting sedition and obscenity, and provisions in the penal code such as the Official Secrets Act and the State Security Act remain in effect and are sometimes used against journalists. The government has stalled on passing freedom of information legislation as well as proposed reforms to the broadcasting sector. In June 2010, Fred M’membe, editor in chief and owner of thePost, the country’s leading independentnewspaper, was found guilty of contempt of court and sentenced to four months in prison with hard labor. The case against M’membe was related to thePost’s publication of an article—written by U.S.-based Zambian lawyer and academic Muna Ndulo—about the trial of the paper’s news editor, Chansa Kabwela, who faced obscenity charges in 2009 over her reporting on a health workers’ strike; Kabwela’s charges were ultimately dismissed. After spending several days in jail, M’membe was released on bail pending an appeal.
The issue of media regulation remains contentious. In April 2010, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (Amendment) Act was passed, allowing the information minister to appoint the ZNBC board without first receiving nominations from an appointments committee. However, the selections must be ratified by the parliament. The 2002 Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act was modified in July, granting the minister similar powers of direct appointment for the IBA. New boards had not been appointed at either the ZNBC or the IBA by year’s end, raising concerns that the government intended to tightly control the licensing process and adding to confusion about which body was responsible for granting broadcast licenses. No new license requests for broadcast outlets to start or expand operations had been granted by year’s end. In November, officials threatened to revoke the license of Radio Lyambai following allegations that the station intended to invite an opposition leader to discuss a controversial political issue; since 2007, the station has been banned from broadcasting live call-in radio shows.
Amid ongoing official threats to introduce statutory regulation of media practices, a consortium of groups within the industry made progress on self-regulation in 2010, agreeing in February to establish a Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC) and drafting a code of ethics that the proposed council would enforce. However, the launch of ZAMEC was repeatedly postponed for the remainder of the year due to a lack of official support for the process—which would limit the participation of public media in the self-regulatory mechanism—and ongoing attempts to reconcile the media industry’s insistence on self-regulation and the government’s support for statutory regulation.
Physical harassment of Zambian journalists occurs regularly and often involves politicians or party activists. In January 2010, there were two instances of groups forcing their way into a broadcast station. In one case, members of the opposition Patriotic Front party stormed the Mazabuka community radio station and demanded that a live program be halted. Despite the invasion, the program was aired in its entirety. In November, supporters of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) attacked and threatened to kill Post assistant news editor George Chella, allegedly in retaliation for his coverage of the party. Chella was at the party’s offices in Lusaka to cover a press conference by UPND lawmakers. Also in November, Chris Chalwe, youth chairperson of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), was sentenced to one year in prison with hard labor in connection with an attack on journalists from the Times of Zambia and thePost at Lusaka International Airport in July 2009.
The government controls theZambia Daily Mail and theTimes of Zambia, both of which are widely circulated. Content is reviewed prior to publication, and many journalists practice self-censorship. Several privately owned newspapers—of which thePost has the widest circulation and is the only daily—provide opposition views and criticism of the government, but face frequent retaliation for their reporting. The government-owned ZNBC is the primary broadcast outlet covering domestic news. Its reporting remains heavily biased in favor of the government and against the opposition. The majority of journalists in Zambia are still employed by public media outlets. However, a growing number of private radio stations, including dozens of community radio stations, and four television stations broadcast alongside state-owned outlets, and international services are not restricted. Some local private stations, including Radio Phoenix and SkyFM,carry call-in shows on which diverse and critical viewpoints are freely expressed. Radio remains the medium of choice in most of the country because of its relatively low cost of access, but many stations face financial difficulties due to their dependence on sponsored programming and a small advertising market. The costs of newsprint and ink (including high import duties and taxes), printing, and distribution remain very high, hampering print outlets’ ability to increase their readership. Reception of both state and private television signals throughout the country remains poor. Advertising is sometimes used as a tool by the government to influence media content and coverage.
The government does not restrict internet access, though costs are prohibitive; only 6.7 percent of the population used the medium in 2010. In November, a judge issued an arrest warrant for the editor of the investigative news website Zambian Watchdog, accusing him of contempt of court for publishing articles concerning an ongoing murder case.