Freedom of Expression Under Threat in Zambia
Author: Mariateresa Garrido
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 08/14/2016
“Every individual shall have the right to receive information”. But, how can anyone exercise this right when there is not a free flow of information? This is exactly the challenge that Zambians are facing. Currently, the government controls the majority of the media, as well as the type of information that is disseminated; while journalists are practicing self-censorship to avoid attacks against them and their families. And, as a consequence, people’s right to receive information is limited.
In 2016 political factors have severely affected the exercise of the right to freedom of expression. In January a new constitution was adopted, and in August Zambians voted for the president, members of the national assembly, mayoral/council chairperson, and district counselors. With the aim of influencing the outcome of these elections, the government implemented several policies that call for international attention. Approved measures have a direct impact in the protection of the right to freedom of expression, and indirect effects on the exercise of the right to political participation and the promotion of democratic debates. Hence, this article briefly evaluates the effects of those measures. It begins illustrating the general media situation; it continues with the evaluation of international obligations that must be fulfilled by Zambia, and presents some of the consequences for the protection of the right.
Zambia’s Media Situation
Since 1991 Zambia has follow democratic elections, and it is considered one of Africa’s most stable democracies. However, throughout history electoral processes have not being except of problems or violence, and the August’s election was not the exception (Freedom House, 2016). There were attacks against journalists, media outlets, and confrontations between followers of the 2 main political parties running for the presidency: the United Party for National Development (UPND) and the Patriotic Front (PF); but these was not the only problem.
In 21 June Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA) raided The Post’s offices with a warrant for allegedly unpaid tax debts. Even though the legality of the measure is unclear, the newspaper had to stop its circulation (International Press Institute, 2016). This measure was, and still is, very damaging. The Post is the most popular independent newspaper, it is one of the few media presenting dissenting opinions regarding authorities’ behavior, and that during the electoral process, was covering the main opposition party: the UPND (Smith, 2016).
To understand the impact of this measure, it is important to consider that the majority of the media is State-controlled. The Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) operates the main national broadcasters. Radio is the main source of information, followed by TV, and both of them are under strict government supervision (BBC, 2015).
The ownership of newspaper is shared between the private sector and the state; and many of the private news media also have an online version. There are other online sources that are widely consulted such as the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports; however, these are not the main source of information because only 20% of Zambians have access to the Internet (Internet World Stats, 2016).
Zambia’s duty to protect the right to Freedom of Expression
In 1984 Zambia ratified the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights; and since then is obliged to respect its Article 9, which indicates:
- Every individual shall have the right to receive information.
- Every individual shall have the right to express and disseminate his opinions within the law.”
To guarantee this right, Zambia must simultaneously protect the rights to hold, disseminate and receive information. And, even though in the Charter it is expressed as an individual right, it has a social dimension that cannot be forgotten. Opinions are formed thanks to the interchange of ideas, and in a democratic society, this necessarily includes access to information, ideas, and opinions from different sources. For those reasons, during electoral processes the fulfillment of these rights becomes extremely relevant.
Article 13 of the same instrument indicates that every citizen has the right to participate in the government of the country, directly or indirectly through political representatives. Therefore, candidates must have the possibility to disseminate political ideas and opinions, political projects, and any other type of information that can help voters to decide; and they simultaneously have to have access to such information. In fact, in the 2009 it was established in the Joint Statement adopted by the African Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, the UN Special Rapporteur, the Inter-American Special Rapporteur and the OSCE Representative, that states should, among others:
- Create conditions that allow the functioning of a plural media.
- To guarantee to all candidates equitable access to public media.
- Put in place effective mechanisms to prevent attacks against journalists and media outlets.
For this election, Zambia has hardly fulfilled these obligations. On June the news media Open Zambia reported about the PF’s plan to win the elections, and one of the core strategic areas was control over media. The document indicates that “no form of media should be given to the UPND… [and that] prime efforts will be made to eliminate the little media coverage by the Post Newspaper” (Open Zambia, 2016). There are many ways to influence the outcome of an election, and media control is one of them. If people do not have access to critical opinions, or just information about the political options, the possibilities to vote for an alternative project are reduced.
As noted, the majority of the media is state-controlled and in June The Post was closed; hence, the opposition leader had no coverage during the presidential campaign. Actually, it is possible to affirm that thanks to this control the main objective of the plan was successfully achieved: Edgar Lungu was reelected with 50.35% of the votes (Marima, 2016).
Moreover, journalists have also suffered several limitations to the exercise of their right. In April, The Post managing editor Joan Chriwa-Ngoma and reporter Mukosha Funga were detained for an article in which the president was strongly criticized; while in June The Post Editor-in-Chief Fred M’membe was criminally charged for allegedly disclosing classified information (International Press Institute, 2016).
However, these situations are not exclusive to this electoral process. In 2013 some journalists faced criminal charges for the publication of information critical to the government, private broadcast licenses were revoked by the president, and critical websites were blocked in an attempt to control the free flow of information (Committee to Protect Journalists, 2014). Due to these situations, journalists have been abstaining from reporting on certain topics to avoid harassment and attacks from government officials. Radios have been impeded to transmit their programs; while judicial and administrative processes have been initiated by government officials against journalists and media outlets (Freedom House, 2016).
The protection of human rights was voluntary accepted by the state even before the establishment of a democratic regime; and the obligations acquired must be observed. In consequence, government officials need to take all the necessary measures to avoid human rights’ violations. According to international law, state representatives have to promote an environment of tolerance and respect; they must condemn attacks against journalist, and adopt a legal framework that guarantees the exercise of the right (UNHRC, 2011). For these reasons, it is necessary that Zambian authorities cease to adopt measures that illegally limit the exercise of the right because they not only affect individual’s right but society in general.
Democracy requires an open debate of the political ideas of each candidate; which traditionally takes place in the media. Newspaper, radios and TV programs play an important role in bringing those ideas to the public. Nonetheless, these possibilities are limited in Zambia. With the reelection of Lungu is not possible to foresee a change in the situation. At the time of writing this article, the Post continues to be closed, although it is making a big effort to continue publishing. It is printing on cheap paper and from a secret place (The Economist, 2016).
This situation is not exclusive to Zambia. Government representatives tend to adopt this type of measures and examples, like the Venezuelan, show that the effects of these measures have a long-term impact. Journalists stop being critical as well as the population, and this is one of the most damaging situations for a democratic country. Democracy depends on the open debate of ideas, especially when they are contradictory. To build peaceful societies the debate of conflicting ideas it is necessary to identify common goals, to take decisions that avoid conflict and benefit people; and these types of debates are only possible when freedom of expression is guaranteed.
I want to thank Fredrick Misebezi, a brave journalist from The Post, for sharing with me some of your concerns about the measures taken by the government. I hope that with this article more people gets to know what is happening in your country, and help you in the difficult task of promoting the right to freedom of expression in Zambia.
Bio: Mariateresa Garrido is a PhD candidate at UPEACE and her research focuses on the protection of the right to freedom of expression in the digital era.