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Zambia’s deteriorating media freedom record ahead of next year’s polls

Critics say now more than ever before, political violence targeted at journalists has become routine

FAILURE by police to put a stop to politically motivated violence against journalists and restrictions on media freedom has led critics to observe the attacks are not unplanned but an election winning strategy by the ruling party ahead of next year’s polls.

The governing Patriotic Front (PF) party deputy secretary general Mumbi Phiri, dismissed the accusation, labeling it as propaganda which has the potential to destroy the country.

Mumbi Phiri – PF deputy secretary general

“I’m hearing this from you for the first time, and we need to be very careful, the way we are using propaganda, we are destroying Zambia,” she said.

But the police have not responded to Makanday’s request for an interview despite giving assurances they would. The inspector general of police Kakoma Kanganja, was asked to give an update of how many people are currently in police custody or appearing in court for their role in the recent spate of attacks on radio stations and journalists.

Ahead of next year’s elections, there has been a spiral of suppression of the media in some parts of the country, seemingly directed towards opposition leaders from the ruling party supporters.

In a video that was circulated on social media in May this year, a presenter at Muchinga FM in Chinsali, some 800 kms north of the capital – Lusaka is seen resisting orders from the youths who besieged the station. They forced their way into the studio to try and stop a live phone interview with opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hichilema.

Hichilema was a few day earlier stopped from featuring on another radio station – Mpika FM in Muchinga province.

He then tweeted: “I have been blocked from talking to our people in Mpika by the PF through their DC (District Commissioner), Moses Katebe.”

Katebe said in an interview with Chete FM, a local radio station in Nakonde, the northern border town with Tanzania, that programmes featuring opposition leaders should be cleared by his office.

Chete FM posted the story on their facebook page but pulled it down few hours later after receiving threats from top ruling party officials.

“I was surprised to find that the story had been deleted,” said a journalist who asked to remain anonymous.

After the two incidents, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Dora Siliya issued a statement saying “government is deeply disturbed by reports of interference in the programming of some radio stations in Mpika and Chinsali districts, where some broadcast programmes have reportedly been disrupted and some unlawful directives ordered”.

She said: “Government wishes to place on record that there are laws in place, with very specific provisions of who has authority, to regulate broadcasting in the country.”

Dora Siliya – Minister of Information and Boradcasting

“The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, in sections 34 to 37 provides for every citizen, whether in their official or individual capacity, who feels aggrieved by the conduct of any broadcasting station to lodge a complaint to the IBA,” she added.

Panji M’soni, the station manager at Muchinga FM in Chinsali accused the police of trying to “sweep the matter under the carpet” after they failed to act on the reported case of an attack on his station in May this year.

“We journalists are not safe to carry out our duties under the PF government because cadres are given too much power and the government is not doing anything to protect us,” he told Makanday.

The Human Rights Commission urged “the government to immediately take practical steps to stop the violations, criminal and undemocratic conduct to restore the constitutionally guaranteed right to freedom of expression in Muchinga Province and indeed the whole country”.

“Thus, there is general view that the cancellation of the Radio Programme on Mpika Radio Station on 13 May 2020, the attack of Muchinga Radio Station on 15 May 2020 and Radio Isoka on 18 May 2020 appear to be backed by the ruling party leadership going by the statement attributed to the PF provincial chairperson,” the Commission said in a statement.

The opposition UPND demanded that “the police arrest the known cadres who invaded Muchinga radio as this is a deliberate ploy by the PF to set an atmosphere were journalists will stop featuring or covering opposition political leaders and their parties”.

It is not the first time ruling party cadres have harassed journalists for featuring opposition leaders.

In May last year, former State House Press aide, Amos Chanda in expressed shock that police had not arrested PF cadres who had stormed Power FM studio in Kabwe, and hounded National Democratic Congress (NDC) leader, Chishimba Kambwili and caused damage to the station property.

Prior to that, cadres in Chipata some 600 kms east of Lusaka, stormed a Catholic- owned Radio Maria after it featured an activist, they accused of criticising government.

Physical attacks against journalists and media outlets are common, especially during elections. Ruling party officials sometimes threaten to close media outlets for not covering the ruling party “properly.”

The recent such attack was at PASME FM in Petauke district of Eastern Province.

Matthew Banda, the station administrator narrated to Makanday how the station was forced off air for a night when the district commissioner Velenasi Banda Moyo demanded that he stops the programme immediately because it was not in order to air the opposition UPND programme.

“After seeing that it was not possible for me to stop the programme, DC Moyo called armed police officers, who raided the studios and forced me and the other staff who were on duty to switch off the radio equipment and immediately vacate the premises or face serious brutality,” he said.

The media rights group – Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia through its lawyers wrote to district commissioner Moyo asking her to pay for the damage caused to the radio equipment and threatened to take the matter to court.

But a source at the station told Makanday that the case was withdrawn because of intimidation Moyo and some ruling party officials.

MISA board member Martin Akende said, “for the practice (attacks) to end, culprits must face the law”. He however, said journalists sometimes tend to withdraw the cases, a major setback to his organisation’s efforts to address the problem.

PF’s Mumbi Phiri says “sometimes, journalists are to blame for these attacks because they don’t guide the people that they interview”.

She said as the country heads towards the 2021 general elections, her party will continue to protect journalists by talking to their supporters and engage journalists.

The recently launched state of the media report by MISA found the the socio-political and legal environment to be “relatively unfree” in quarters one and two of 2020 because of the many violations and negative developments witnessed in the media sector.

According to the January to June 2020 report, one of the major incidences that affected the state of the media was the break down in relations between government and Prime Television which led to the station being blacklisted and its license license cancelled by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) “under suspicious circumstances”.

MISA observed that “interruption of live broadcasts is in itself an affront on media freedoms and the media’s editorial independence”.

 

 

 

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