It is my observation that in many countries, investigating and making critical comments relating to corruption, trafficking, and human rights violations, put journalists, opposition leaders and civil society leaders’ lives at great risk. According to the Africa Media Barometer (AMB) Zambia 2021 Report, Zambia has signed numerous instruments, including the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights but these have to translate into national law to be applied, and it is in this area that Zambia is lagging. The AMB report further illustrates how the previous government failed to honor regional and international instruments on freedom of expression and freedom of the media.
Freedom of expression has been affected by specific laws, that include criminal libel and defamation. Despite having been independent for almost six decades, Zambia still retains several laws that were formulated to serve the colonial order. For example, the Defamation of the President law, which is provided for in Section 69 of the Penal Code states that ‘anyone who brings the name of the President into hatred, ridicule, or contempt or publishes any defaming or insulting matter, commits an offence. And if found guilty could be imprisoned for up to 3 years. On the other hand, Article 20 (3) (c) of the Constitution of Zambia guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of expression, including freedom of the press, unless such freedom is not justifiable in a democratic society.
An Amnesty International Report in June last year 2021, observed an environment of fear in Zambia as human rights defenders, including journalists, lived under constant fear of arrest, intimidation and violence. Freedom of expression became a very expensive commodity as the powers that be criminalized criticism and unleashed party cadres on known and perceived critics of the regime. I witnessed the police brutalize those who attempted to exercise their freedom of expression by displaying placards. There seem to be different interpretations of what freedom of expression entails. In as much as there have been positive changes since the ushering in of the new government, some negative elements of the past regime such as the recent arrests of political party leaders on the premise of something they said or wrote remain. The new dawn government has regrettably continued to uphold the same repressive laws as their predecessors to ensure that critics are dealt with accordingly.
This environment in my opinion, has led many journalists and well-meaning Zambians to censor what they say to avoid the punishment that comes with voicing out thoughts that are contrary to those of the government of the day.
As a young political analyst and columnist in what was then Zambia’s most vibrant and widely read independent newspaper, I was made aware very earlier on by my readership, some of whom happened to be my colleagues that I needed to be careful about what I wrote. This advice was provoked by my tendency to write articles that embraced truth in its purest and most honest form, irrespective of who was offended or uncomfortable by this www.allafrica.com/stories/200601200049.html. The truth sets you free and, in this case, putting out my honest opinion through my articles was liberating. Nonetheless, even as a rather highly ambitious new entrant to the media world, I found the need to censor what I put out there for public consumption to avoid potentially facing dire consequences from extremely powerful and influential politicians quite unsettling and demotivating. But at this point, it still felt more like I would be ascribing to the fear of the unknown and not necessarily something that I needed to take note of as posing a real threat.
Nevertheless, the question that lingered in my mind was whether this fear or caution for Zambian journalists to tread carefully when carrying out their duty was justified or not.
My previous perception on this quickly changed during the months leading up to the 2006 Tripartite elections and the years that followed, when I witnessed first-hand a journalist being arrested by the police, www.theguardian.com/media/greenslade/2013/jul/19/press-freedom-zambia. During this time, I realized that there was a thin line between perceived and real threats when it came to journalism in Zambia. The environment simply did not allow journalists and writers like myself to fully practice the freedom of expression as stated in Article 20 (3) (c) of the constitution of Zambia. Instead, to the contrary, politicians and political cadres hold so much power and influence that the media and journalists could be harassed, beaten and arrested at any given time.
It is after this that I awoke to the real dangers that journalists in Zambia face when it comes to executing their work without reservations.
For me, this rude awakening meant confronting the ever-so-present fear of being a target of political attack if I were to continue writing objective articles devoid of any fear or favor. As someone that has always been governed by conviction, integrity and principles, the itching need to speak the truth superseded my fear of potential persecution. Over the years, it is now a well-known fact that many journalists and reporters around the world today risk their lives to uncover the truth. UNESCO reports that every four days a journalist is killed in the world. In 2020, 62 journalists were killed for just doing their job. Between 2006 and 2020, over 1,200 media professionals lost their lives for their work. In most cases, the killers went unpunished.
Subsequently, there are psychological effects that result from being a columnist in what I would describe as a very hostile media environment. Despite my bold resolve, I still questioned whether an article I was working on would attract backlash. With every published article came the feeling of dread and anxiety in anticipation of being on the receiving end of the government’s wrath. I must say that this psychological effect has a very negative bearing on journalists’ mental and physical health, as one is always constantly reminded of the impending danger that looms. The hostile working environment became even worse in the last 5 years of the Patriotic Front (PF) led administration, where both media and individual citizens’ rights to freedom of expression was almost non-existent. This can be largely attributed to the influx of political cadres who were more powerful than the police. There was no adherence to the rule of law whatsoever. Most journalists began practicing self-censorship to escape being targeted by the cadres and politicians, www.cpj.org/2015/07/journalists-arrested-in-zambia-for-publishing-alle. We saw the shutting down of privately owned radio and television stations and intensified victimization of journalists, civil society leaders and ordinary citizens. The action to shut down Prime Tv is supported by the fact that the Broadcasting legislation does not provide an independent environment for commercial and community broadcasting. Therefore the government could easily instruct the regulatory body to carry out their agenda. This is affirmed by the AMB 2021 Zambia report, sector 3, (3.1) which observed that, IBA, a regulatory body for media houses has been perceived to favor authorities rather than the broadcasting stations and has been used to harass media houses that don’t seem to toe the line. The heightened level of intimidation meant the government of the day and officials could plunder and mis-manage national resources with impunity without anyone calling them out on their atrocious behavior, www.zambianwatchdog.com/government-shuts-down-prime-tv.
In my view, self-censorship is no doubt detrimental to any political dispensation. It has a very negative impact on society as a whole, in that with a less-functional media, democracy is under threat. Freedom of expression is an important characteristic of any democracy. This is because it allows people to express their thoughts and vent their feelings without fear of prosecution. It helps people know the ideas of others and leads to an informed citizenry. But most certainly, I am always mindful that freedom of expression has limitations, especially when it clashes with the rights of other people. We are all aware that for democracy and development to thrive, society needs the critical element of freedom of expression. Moreover, freedom of expression is a universal human right that everyone should enjoy. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees the freedom of expression. Specifically, alongside freedom of information and freedom of the press, freedom of expression serves as an enabler of all other rights.
It is therefore important to emphasize the point that, the way we see the world and act on it depends to a large extent on the information we have. This is why freedom of expression and freedom of the press are fundamental rights and the free flow of ideas a key driver of vibrant societies and human progress. But freedom of expression is under threat everywhere, especially in Africa and the developing world. Threats and violence against those who exercise their freedom of expression have now become common, Zambia is no exception.
Fast forward to 2022 and the extent to which the freedom of expression and freedom of the press is practiced remains a highly debatable and contentious subject. It will remain so as long as we continue to hold on to laws that infringe on this right to freely express our opinions. As previously mentioned, the Defamation of the President Law is absolutely unreasonable in a democratic society. My experience with the application of this law over the last three decades, has been far from satisfactory, www.ipi.media/zambia-journalists-charged-with-defaming-countrys-president. Journalists, academics, opposition leaders and civil society activists have been jailed, intimidated, or harassed for exercising their freedom of expression by word of mouth, in print or online. The views on this law are widely held by most stakeholders as was expressed by speakers and participants at a recently held Public Forum co-organized by the Centre for Policy Dialogue and FES-Zambia, www.znbc.co.zm/news/sangwa-wants-defamation-of-the-president-repealed.
There is an urgent need to debate the efficacy and rationale of this law in a democratic society like ours. This is no doubt a very emotive issue in our society today, but I am hopeful that we can debate and discuss soberly to collectively arrive at practical recommendations on the way forward. In my opinion, this law cannot exist in its current form, as it is ambiguous, subjective and vague, a recipe for misinterpretation and misapplication.
Zambia celebrated its 58th independence anniversary on 24th October,2022 and a year in office for the New Dawn government, it is important to examine the relevance of some of our laws in a democratic system. It cannot be denied that one of the imperatives that drove hundreds of thousands of Zambians to the polls in 2021 was the state of the deteriorating state of our human rights.
The change of government last year brought optimism that something would be done about the Defamation of the President Law and thereby enhancing the freedom of expression, but one year on, and we are still stuck with the law. All I hear are promises to repeal it but no tangible actions yet. I hope this is not your typical political rhetoric, but an issue that the current government is taking seriously. It is only then that Zambia can begin the process of creating a conducive environment for press freedom to thrive devoid of practices such as self-censorship by journalists and citizens. As an optimist, I am hopeful that we will see the change happen sooner rather than later.
The author is the Executive Director for Centre for Policy Dialogue (a local Think-tank), host of a radio show called All Things Governance on Capital FM and a former columnist/political analyst for the Post Newspaper (now called The Mast). A graduate from the University of Zambia and an Alumna of the London School of International Business and University of Northampton in the United Kingdom. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Zambia with a research bias towards Ethical Transformational Leadership and Performance in Zambia’s Public Service.
The views expressed and conclusions made in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of fesmedia Africa, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES), or the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA).