A new dawn is upon Zambia’s media as Chushi Kasanda settles in as the country’s new Minister of Information and Media, bringing hope of a more open environment for journalists.
When Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema took office in August, he pledged to respect freedom of expression and media freedom after Zambian media experienced a decay of freedom of expression during former Zambian President Lungus’ administration.
Opposition leaders, journalists, media houses and activists have all been targeted for speaking out against the government previously.
Over the past five years, the law has been used to criminalise peaceful dissent leading to the prosecution of people by government critics using a wide range of offences including criminal defamation, incitement of public disorder and sedition.
That is according to the ,2021 Zambia Amnesty International report, Ruling by “FEAR AND REPRESSION”.
There was pre-election tension when the Zambian government under incumbent President Lungu instituted an internet shutdown. He also arbitrarily blocked access to social media platforms such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram and Facebook during the election.
Zambian-based media outlet Lusaka Times told ,Business insider that officials of Zambia’s Ministry of Information and Broadcast Services shut internet access to curb the spread of misinformation during the electoral process.
The internet shutdown taxed an already treacherous environment for the operation of free and independent media. Over the past year, Zambia’s media freedom and freedom of expression have been stifled by controversial digital security laws such as the Data protection act and the Cyber security act.
The ,African Media Barometer Zambia 2021 report by MISA Zambia analysed the country’s media and found that the laws had a chilling effect on the freedom of expression.
“This is considered a pre-emptive strike to curb dissenting voices on social media ahead of the scheduled 2021 General Elections slated for 12 August 2021,” the report said.
Zambian journalist Natasha Mhango told frayintermedia that reporters remained fearful and even resorted to self-censorship as media workers were harassed by ruling party cadres. They were linked to the previous president and would confront media who were presumed to be anti-government.
“This tarnished our industry and in the end, we were disappointing our readers who felt they were not getting value for money as we were unable to tell all sides of the story,” she said.
“This behaviour hampered our work and even the quality of our work.”
During his inaugural speech, President Hichilema outlined his government’s position on the treatment of journalists, warning that arresting anyone with different views could be misconstrued as merely hiding government inadequacies.
“We also wish to state that no one, and we mean no one, will be sent to jail for criticising the UPND Alliance Government,” President Hichilema said in his inauguration speech.
Mhango said she hopes the Zambian media would be able to restore its credibility in this new era.
“With this promise of media freedom, we hope that it will be perfected by protecting our profession through liscenceship which is something that had started in the previous government but people were sceptical over the reasons of why it was being done.”
International agencies welcome the “new dawn”
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Africa program coordinator Angela Quintal has welcomed President Hichilema’s promises to respect the freedom of expression. She warned however that Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed made similar promises when he took power only to backslide.
“The promise therefore made by the new President to respect press freedom is a move in the right direction. We hope to see a much stronger press not only in coverage of all players but also ensuring that they play a key role in holding power to account […] We hope that Hichilema will not disappoint and go the Abiy route,” said Quintal.
Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia interim chairperson Barnabas Simatendi said press freedom is the backbone of democracy. He stressed that efforts must be made to provide and maintain access to the internet and other communication platforms as a restricted media risks censorship and hampers public dialogue.
“While the spread of disinformation must be countered, criminal penalties for distributing false information are disproportionate and prone to arbitrary application and abuse,” he said.
“Instead, governments should focus on combating falsehood by delivering clear, accurate, and up-to-date information.”
Quintal said the abuse of Zambian state media must not be allowed to happen again. “The important role that the media can play during an election should not be under-estimated. The way that the media conducts itself during an election can have an overall impact on the outcome of that election and ultimately the governance system,” said Quintal.