Thursday, 30 October 2014


"We'll see for ourselves on Friday," was a refrain on the lips of most journalists I met in Lusaka in mid-September, as they speculated on the health of President Michael Sata ahead of their country's opening of parliament, where the leader was due to speak.
But on September 19 only eight journalists from the state-owned newspapers, radio, and television as well as the privately owned Post were allowed into parliament's press gallery, according to news reports. The rest were directed to a press room some 300 yards from the parliamentary chamber where they could only monitor events on the official television feed, prompting the Zambian chapter of the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) to file an official complaint in the Lusaka High Court.
Speculation about Sata's health started as early as two years ago, and media reported the president had gone for medical treatment to India (July 2012) and Israel (June 2014). In May this year, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services denied claims that the president was not well, saying such statements were "outlandish and unsubstantiated." Concerns about his health intensified following his failure to speak at the United Nations General Assembly this month, and the truth is now out. Sata died in a London hospital on October 28.
Given the ruling Patriotic Front's broken electoral promises of a new constitution and a freedom of information act, the lack of transparency about their leader's health and the antagonism towards those who asked questions is perhaps not surprising. For those hoping for change in the media environment it has been a long wait with little reward.
When Sata took office in 2011 he was heralded as a president who could bring welcome change, but on his watch at least four journalists have faced criminal charges, three websites have been blocked, and community radio stations airing opposition voices regularly have to fend off threats and attacks from political cadres who object to what is being said on air. There is no sign of the much-anticipated access to information law being passed soon, nor of the new constitution.
In addition to the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation's (ZNBC) national and regional radio services, there are at least 20 community, commercial, and religious stations on air, according to UNESCO. However, none of these independent stations broadcasts nationally; they are confined to the capital or other urban areas. When Permanent Secretary of Information and Broadcasting Emmanuel Mwamba granted national licenses to two popular commercial stations, Qfm and Radio Phoenix, in December 2013, the move was slapped down by Sata, who fired Mwamba shortly thereafter.
Notwithstanding the blocking of websites and harassment of community radio stations, the biggest gains for media freedom have been in broadcasting and online, says former veteran journalist and founder of the now defunct independent newspaper Today, Masautso Phiri. Referring to the interactive nature of radio and the growing number of community-based stations, Phiri told me that radio has allowed people to speak out. "We have demystified broadcasting, at least people can now talk. The battle between the government and radio stations is always over live programs."
Indeed, the battle was in full force the day I arrived in Lusaka. On Monday September 15, cadres of the ruling Patriotic Front arrived at Breeze FM, an independent station in Chipata, a bustling town near Zambia's eastern border with Malawi, and threatened to beat up the news editor of following remarks made during a morning debate program about the party's poor results in a recent by-election. The event was reported three days later in the privately-owned Post Newspaper, which included unequivocal condemnation from civil society activists as well as provincial government officials. News editor Samuel Ndlovu told me that the cadres accused Breeze FM of being biased against them and that when his colleagues tried to reason with the would-be assailants, the cadres threatened to beat them up too if the station carried any "negative" broadcasts in the future. Breeze FM filed a complaint with the police.
In March, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Mwansa Kapeya warned Radio Mano, a community station in Kasama in the Northern Province, to ensure that its content was "professional" and not "inflammatory"--otherwise he would revoke its license. In April, ruling party thugs raided Sun FM in Ndola in the Copperbelt Province demanding an end to an interview with opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, according to news reports. A few weeks later, PF Secretary-General Wynter Kabimba, speaking on another radio station, denied that PF members had threatened Hichilema, claiming rather that "ordinary citizens" angry at his criticism of President Sata had attacked the station. Also in April, the government said community stations should repeat the news bulletins of the state-owned ZNBC, according to news reports. There are numerous examples of thugs harassing community media in previous years too.
Despite being firmly under state control, the ZNBC has begun to be more balanced in its reporting, says the former chairperson of the Zambia chapter of MISA, Henry Kabwe, pointing to the willingness of its current head to respond to complaints and include opposition voices in its broadcasts. But Kabwe also raises the threat posed by party cadres. "Every party has them--they're used to attack the media and don't know the meaning of press freedom," he told me. A lecturer in the department of mass communications at the University of Zambia (UNZA), Rose Nyondo, is also critical of the vigilante behavior of party cadres. "They do not represent the information ministry, they're not elected members of parliament, they have no status in society, but they storm radio stations and threaten to close them if they don't like what's being said on air," she told me.
The student radio station at the national university has also come under attack from the government. Its transmitter footprint was reduced from 1,000 watts to 260 watts in 2012, but currently the station can be heard within a radius of about 30 kilometers (20 miles), according to the station manager, Macpherson Mutale. He said a Friday evening program organized by the students' union that brought in different political parties for two hours to state their position on certain policies has been stopped on government orders. Mutale told me that in May, the information minister instructed UNZA's campus station to cease any discussion of politics on air. "We explained that we don't air political programs, but that we hold discussion forums with students," Mutale said, adding that their plea fell on deaf ears. "Right now any debate is a problem and we've been told we cannot invite any politicians on air."
Subsequent to my visit, Minister of Youth and Sport Chishimba Kambwili stormed the UNZA radio studios, according to news reports, claiming that the station was sponsored by his enemies and threatening to fire student hosts. Discussions are ongoing at UNZA about who may be invited on air and what procedures to follow.
Although Internet costs are high and access is limited, the online space is where some of the most robust news reporting and commentary can be found. In 2013 the government repeatedly blocked two news websites, the Zambian Watchdog andZambia Reports, and continued to threaten these sites in 2014 when the Watchdogpublished a copy of the draft new constitution which the government had refused to release. In response, the sites moved their content to Facebook, where theZambian Watchdog now has more than 229,000 likes and Zambia Reports more than 142,000. After threatening to shut down social media in Zambia in January 2014, Sata created his own Facebook page, which garnered more than 107,900 likes. More Zambians are expected to gain access to the Internet through projects such as Facebook's initiative, which announced recently it will provide free access via certain cellphone networks in Zambia.
Veteran former journalist Phiri says of the websites that have been a thorn in government's flesh: "They have to be defended ... the more news the better." He added, with a laugh, "At least then we have something that the government has to deny."
The editors and contributors of Zambian Watchdog work anonymously for their own security, according to its website. Some journalists whom the government suspects of being involved have paid a high price. I met with three journalists who have been defending themselves against a slew of charges over the past 12 months. Clayson Hamasaka, Thomas Zgambo and Wilson Pondamali have been charged with a range of offences from possession of pornography, to theft of a library book, to sedition. The effect has been to tie them up in court, drain their finances, and keep them out of work--and to send a chilling message to other critical journalists.
Hamasaka, the former head of media studies at Evelyn Hone College who was fired from his job in 2012, is contesting charges of possessing pornography on his laptop. Pondamali has been acquitted of all four of the charges brought against him since July 2013--theft of a library book, possession of military stores, attempted escape from custody, and malicious damage to a police vehicle--but he says that as a freelancer, it has been difficult to do any work to earn an income during this period.
Pondamali told me just days before he was acquitted on the final charge against him that he feared if he lost the case he would be sentenced to jail. "They are determined to give me a custodial sentence to stop me from working and to create a state of fear in the minds of journalists," he said. However, he was adamant about continuing his work as a journalist. "My role is to disseminate information, I'm not a PR agent for the government. That's the price I'm paying, that's the cost."
Thomas Zagambo says the charge of sedition brought against him has been adjourned "indefinitely," but that he is fighting a charge of possession of pornography on his laptop, a charge he denies. He has to report to police headquarters every Friday and his passport is being withheld. "Who can employ you in this situation?" he says. "I'm living off handouts."
The attacks on the media are part of a larger malaise in Zambian society, according to Zagambo, who says, "Civil society has gone to sleep." This criticism is echoed by civil society activist and project coordinator of the Zambia Community Health Initiative, Casco Mubanga. "People wanted a change of government in 2011 and civil society had high expectations of the Patriotic Front. But people are still shocked at what has happened--the restrictions on civil society."
While in opposition, the Patriotic Front campaigned against the NGO Act of 2009, which compelled NGOs to register with a central authority and prohibited those NGOs not registered from operating. Parliament passed the law in January 2011. However once in power, the PF made no effort to change it, although in the face of widespread protest it extended the deadline for registration numerous times. In June this year the Zambian Ministry of Community Development wrote to diplomatic missions and aid agencies, instructing them to work with only those NGOs that were registered under the NGO Act, according to news reports that obtained copies of the letter. The letter did not spell out consequences for donors which did not comply.
"Change has to start with us, the practitioners," says Zgambo. "We have to push for these things, we must be professional." Phiri agrees, arguing that elements of the media, through not guarding their credibility and integrity, have been "an enemy" to Zambians and to freedom of expression. "Investigative journalism has died--it's been dead since the 1990s," he says. "These days you read The Post [privately owned] and the government newspapers and the news is the same."

With Guy Scott at the helm as caretaker president and elections scheduled within 90 days, we will soon know whether Zambians are disillusioned by the Patriotic Front's broken promises and lack of media reform or if they will give the party one more chance. In recent months, factions have already been jostling for ascendancy in the party. A free and independent media offering space and airtime to all parties will be needed now more than ever.

Monday, 20 October 2014


The Ebola crisis in West Africa is unrelenting, and journalists on the frontline of reporting on the virus are caught between authorities wanting to control how the outbreak is reported, and falling victim to the disease themselves.

Liberia's media is in a fight for survival, with its government continuing its clampdown on the press which began after the first cases of Ebola were reported there in March, according to CPJ research and interactions with local journalists and rights activists.
On September 30, the government announced it was taking over the issuing of accreditation for both local and international journalists to practice in the country, according to news reports. The Press Union of Liberia has accused the government of going against a Memorandum of Understanding signed in the early 1990s between the PUL and the government, in which the PUL was put in charge of accrediting individual journalists, while the government, through the Ministry of Information, registered media houses, the reports said. The government has reneged by saying the memorandum is not backed by any statutory law, government spokesman Isaac Jackson responded.
On October 2, the government announced new media restrictions barring health workers from speaking to the press, and requiring all local and foreign journalists to obtain official written approval before contacting and conducting interviews with patients, or recording, filming or photographing healthcare facilities, according to news reports. Journalists without this permission are at risk of arrest and prosecution, the reports said. Health officials said the restrictions were necessary to protect the privacy of patients and health workers, and applied to local and international journalists, according to news reports.
President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, in an October 1 letter to Parliament also requested additional powers to restrict movement and public gatherings, and the authority to appropriate property "without payment of any kind or any further judicial process," The Associated Press reported. The president, citing the need to bolster the fight against Ebola, sought the suspension of several articles in the Liberian constitution including freedom of expression and the press, movement, labour rights, and religion. Lawmakers, some warning the country risked turning into a police state, rejected the request, Tennen Dalieh, program assistant at the Center for Media Studies and Peacebuilding in Liberia, told me.
Sirleaf's request in Parliament came on the heels of a three-month state of emergency imposed on August 6 where, in a televised speech, Sirleaf warned of the use of "extraordinary measures," including suspending citizens' rights, in the bid to contain the virus. Liberia has the highest casualty with 2,458 deaths out of 4,493 confirmed, probable and suspected deaths linked to Ebola, recorded in seven countries worldwide, according to World Health Organisation figures published October 15.
Dalieh recounted to me how "this is becoming a way of life; the sound of sirens, trucks loaded with bodies." Mae Azango, a CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee and journalist with the independent FrontPageAfrica, said she has witnessed the incremental pile-up of bodies, at times nearing 100 daily, being deposited for cremation at the only crematorium in Monrovia which belongs to the Indian community. "I am frightened! It is worse than anything you can imagine," Azango told me. "People are dying on a daily basis. We are dying Peter! We are dying, on a daily basis!"
The news that three Liberian journalists died from Ebola is a reminder of the risks the press can face. The PUL announced the deaths of Cassius Saye, a cameraman at Real TV, and Alexander Koko Anderson, a contributor to Liberia Women Democracy Radio, who both died in October, according to news reports and local sources. Freelance journalist Yaya Kromah died in September, the reports said. It is uncertain in what circumstances all three contracted the disease, local journalists told me.
With Ebola making headlines around the world, international news outlets have deployed journalists to cover the story in West Africa. Ashoka Mukpo, an American freelance journalist who was working for the U.S.-based NBC News, contracted Ebola in October, according to news reports. Mukpo is among at least five Americans evacuated to the U.S. for treatment after contracting Ebola in West Africa, news reports said.
"Now that I've had first-hand [experience] with this scourge of a disease, I'm even more pained at how little care sick West Africans are receiving," Mukpo tweeted on October 13.
In Sierra Leone, two journalists have died from Ebola, according to news reports. Victor Kassim, a journalist at the Catholic station Radio Maria, died in September, news reports said. His entire family, including his child and wife, who worked as a nurse, succumbed to the disease, Kelvin Lewis, president of the Sierra Leone Association of Journalists (SLAJ), told me. Mohamed Mwalim Sheriff, a journalist with Eastern Radio, died in June, according to news reports. One account said that at the onset of the Ebola outbreak Sheriff had interviewed a Muslim cleric who cared for a patient, Lewis told me. Sheriff may have contracted the disease during the burial of the Ebola patient, he said.
With the epidemic rising despite a state of emergency, the Sierra Leone government embarked on a three-day lockdown of the country on September 19 to allow health workers to go door-to-door to educate the public and locate Ebola victims. This led to the discovery of 130 new cases, according to news reports. In the midst of the ravaging disease, journalists showed how the press can help a nation in crisis. With radio the main source for information, the media dedicated hours of broadcast time to enlighten the public about the virus.
"We started doing our own messages and broadcasting. We started by giving up free advertising space in our newspapers and giving up 30 minutes airtime free on the radio for Ebola messages," Lewis told me.
The Sierra Leone government has openly congratulated journalists and acknowledged the positive contribution of the media to end Ebola, and called for the media's continued partnership to combat it, according to news reports. This is a stark contrast to how the government initially accused journalists of spreading rumors about Ebola, before the disease spiralled out of control and led to thesacking of Health Minister Miatta Kargbo, Lewis told me.
The SLAJ, with support from the government, U.N. agencies and the U.S., has been organising training for journalists on how to report responsibly on the virus, according to news reports. Lewis explained how messages that Ebola had no cure were reframed to enlighten people that survival is possible if they seek help early. Such messages helped abate suspicions from the public on the intentions of the government to quarantine them, with many believing that because there is no cure they would die.
Even legislators had to rethink fighting the media over reports that questioned how $1.7 million in funds to fight Ebola in their constituencies was being utilised, according to media reports.
"Parliament summoned me twice and they saw reason for their focus to be on stopping Ebola and not journalists whose responsibility, I explained, is to report the concerns and important issues the public raises, including money meant for fighting Ebola," Lewis told me.
In Guinea, CPJ reported the deaths of journalist Facely Camara, of Liberte FM, and Molou Cherif and Sidiki Sidibe, media workers with Radio Rurale de N'Zerekore, and five others in September. They were killed by a mob while covering a public health awareness campaign in villages. The BBC reported that many villagers accused health workers of spreading Ebola. Three weeks after their death, soldiers prevented a team of journalists and lawyers who had obtained official permission to investigate the murders, to enter the village, Radio France Internationalreported. Their equipment was seized and, when it was returned, recordings and photos had been deleted, the report said.
The lack of education about Ebola poses a great threat to the eradication of the virus. The effect is the alarming increase worldwide in the stigmatisation of citizens from Ebola-affected countries, which the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, has warned against, according to news reports. On October 13, Cameroon authorities deported three Sierra Leone sports journalists and two sports ministry officials who arrived in Yaoundé on October 8 to cover international soccer matches between the two countries, according to news reports. Cameroon police and immigration officers barred BBC correspondent Mohamed Fajah Barrie, and Frank Magnus Ernest Cole and Mohamed Kelfala Sesay, both journalists with Mercury Radio, from leaving their hotel because the Sierra Leone Football Association had not included their names in the official list of delegates declared free of Ebola, Barrie told me.
"We were humiliated. It was very disgraceful," Barrie said. "We were confined at the hotel, isolated at the airport, and escorted even up to the entrance of the plane."
African governments have called on the world to assist in the fight against Ebola; a plea being taken with more seriousness since its discovery in countries outside Africa, including the U.S. and Spain. The U.N. Security Council in an October 15statement has however warned that the world's response to Ebola "has failed to date to adequately address the magnitude of the outbreak and its effects."
With the world focusing on countries stricken with Ebola, any government seeking to supress the media at this time will surely be viewed as having misplaced priorities. Sierra Leone, which has received international commendation for its efforts, seems to understand this. Liberia could do more to use the press to help its efforts.
The implications for reporting on Ebola are clear, and public enlightenment campaigns by the media, such as the Ebola page on the independentFrontPageAfrica's website, are steps in the right direction. Journalists and their employers however, must also think about their safety and well-being when reporting on the virus. CPJ has advice on covering epidemics in its Journalist Security Guide, which is available online in several languages.
There is a distinct difference in the protective measures being taken between local and internationals journalists covering Ebola in West Africa. Stringent precautions taken by international media outlets include providing disinfectant sprays, surgical gloves, boots, plastic overalls and bio-hazard kits, according to news reports. The BBC reported having a bio-hazard expert working alongside its journalists in Sierra Leone as part of its risk management. But what are the options for less sophisticated local media outlets, many of whose journalists are poorly paid and barely have necessary working journalism tools?
"We don't have any of those protective measures like the foreign media. We are just making sure that we follow the rules--no touching, wash your hands with chlorine, don't get too close to people," Lewis said.
In Liberia, Azango explained to me how journalists like her have been left to provide their own protection. "Where will journalists get hazard kits when even health workers don't have enough and the government doesn't want us to report?" Azango asked. "We are on our own. I wear a long-sleeve coat, put on rain boots, and have a hand sanitizer in my bag when I go reporting. That's all."
For journalists, media professionals, and news outlets, the price of telling the important stories around this epidemic ravaging West Africa should not come with the cost of lives. Journalists worldwide have begun sharing their experience and ways they are covering Ebola, according to news reports. Yet, the death of media workers is having a deflating effect on the morale, journalists repeatedly told me.

For Liberian authorities, the necessity of a working relationship with the media cannot be overemphasized. The government would do well to start forging a united front with the media and other actors. This is a first step to ensuring the collective survival of its citizens.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia would like to commend the government for appointing the Board of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA).

This step completes the establishment of the IBA and operationalization of the IBA Act which had been in limbo since 2002.

MISA Zambia always considered the IBA partially operational when the board was not in place. MISA Zambia felt that it was a mockery to state that the IBA was fully operational when the previous interim board comprised only the Permanent Secretary from the Ministry of Information and the Director General of the IBA.

MISA Zambia would like to urge the IBA Board to observe professionalism and act independently to ensure that the broadcast sector is independent and operates professionally.

We further call on government to adequately provide for independence of the IBA board by reinstating the appointments committee in the IBA Amendment Act of 2010 in order for the full purpose of the law to take effect. This should be in addition to including a clause that will allow Parliament to Ratify the IBA Board.

Hellen Mwale

Chairperson – MISA Zambia