My own phone was very busy. A strange number had been trying to call me on WhatsApp, but I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to pick a strange WhatsApp call. “It’s obviously another Bowman fan mistaking my line for that of the Lusaka Province Minister, anyway,” I thought.
Ever since it was published on Facebook, my contact somehow appears under the Google search results for “Bowman Lusambo phone number”.
The previous few weeks, I had spent time answering these calls from people who were trying to reach the minister to report mealie-meal retailers who were overpricing the commodity.
There were no price controls in place, but buying more than one bag of mealie meal was an ‘arrestable’ offence, as far as the Lusaka Province minister was concerned, and so was selling the commodity at K1 more than the minister’s recommended price.
I had a more pressing matter to deal with, and picking calls meant for the minister was least of my concerns, I decided. So I juggled between cutting my persistent caller and making my own persistent calls to my elder brother at Prime TV.
A few hours earlier, social media had been lit with reactions from the breaking news that had broken many hearts.
“The cancellation is necessary in the interest of public safety,” the director general of the Independent Broadcasting Authority had stated in a shocking statement announcing the government’s decision on the fate of my country’s biggest and most watched television station.
“Please note that with this letter, Prime Television’s license is now void and should be surrendered to the authority,” read a paragraph of the letter addressed to my brother. After years of toiling to quantify his dream, it all came down to this letter. Huh? How has he received this development? I wondered.
If there was one language he spoke more fluently than journalism, it was humility. In his dressing, in the car he drove and in his interaction with people, my brother remained the true definition of humble. But he was bigger than he portrayed himself. From being a simple cameraman at the Zambia National Broadcasting Authority, he had built a huge platform for Zambians to air their views on governance matters. What Prime TV couldn’t capture was captured by his other media outlet, Joy FM. But all that never made my brother egotistic.
Prime TV had grown so big in popularity, that it was slowly turning into the national broadcaster. Government authorities conceded this fearful fact. Even when the Head of State was addressing Parliament, Zambians preferred to watch via Prime TV. On several occasions, ministers would pay Prime TV to re-broadcast ZNBC programmes where they featured, knowing few people watched the State broadcaster, yet Zambians paid TV levy to sustain its operations. My Prime TV brother had conquered the airwaves, yet he remained humble.
He called me “ba bosi” and he would rebuke his staff for making me wait at the reception whenever I visited his office to get some encouragement on how to survive under a shrinking space for private media.
“How come you don’t know this man? Next time he comes, bring him straight to my office,” he told the security officer on my previous visit to his Prime TV building where we held a meeting that culminated into the first ever studio based public discussion forum, which featured Constitutional lawyer John Sangwa SC, Patrick Nshindano, the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) Executive Director and Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ) general secretary Fr Emmanuel Chikoya.
“Ba bosi, we want you to handle the interview for Bill 10, it’s also good for News Diggers, your paper is doing a great job. We need to pull each other as we fight for this country,” he said in that meeting.
Not only did I dismiss his suggestion, I also laughed at his imagination that I could make a TV personality. Further to my argument, I had never been on TV before, save for a few times I appeared on the news leaving police cells after I had been arrested and jointly charged with my former boss Fred M’membe, with whom I relentlessly fought the illegal closure of The Post Newspaper until it was finally liquidated, dubiously.
In my previous employment, on the night of June 27, 2016, I was ruthlessly beaten by police officers who smoked me out of my office at gun point. The offence I had committed was “unlawful entry into a building” (my office). We had earlier enforced a court order from the Tax Appeals Tribunal directing the police to vacate the premises and allow the newspaper to operate, and as far as we thought, the tax dispute between ZRA and the newspaper had been normalised. Little did we know that the police officer on duty had received instructions to ensure I don’t leave until a heavily armed backup was called in. They claimed we had forged a court order.
I was beaten badly. Using the butt of his AK47 riffle, one officer hit me in the face and my eyeglasses were damaged. Another police officer pierced me with a sharp object that left a scar on my back. Two other officers grabbed me by my left hand and right leg as they dragged me to the tarmac on Bwinjimfumu Road, where I was to be joined by my boss and his wife. I bled profusely, but I was denied a police report and the right to seek medical attention. The commander supervising my beating that night was an officer called Boswell. Ba bosi!
After my release from detention, I got a call from my Prime TV brother. “Ba bosi, I need to see you, sorry about what happened,” he comforted me, without realising what that name reminded me of.
I felt like an endangered journalist ahead of a crucial general election that year, so I offered to secretly meet my brother in his car outside the Northmead Assemblies of God Church. While he sympathised with me, I told him that it was his resilience at Prime TV that gave me a lot of motivation to an extent that if The Post failed to recover, I would one day, in future, start a newspaper myself.
That was three years ago and as time went by, I discovered that many Zambians were still thirsty for an independent critical press. I got a lot of encouragement from my Prime TV brother to help him fill the gap for independent journalism.
“You can do it ba bosi, TV interviews are like the same thing you do when we are holding the Public Discussion Forum from Intercontinental Hotel,” he insisted while escorting me out of his office the previous month.
In the past year, we had been conducting public debates under the auspices of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA) and Prime TV had become our vibrant local partner. But we had abandoned the hotel venue because ruling party cadres rudely disrupted the previous constitutional debate hosted in conjunction with the Law Association of Zambia. The solution, we had resolved, was a TV studio based discussion with a managed audience, but I refused to be the one to do the interview.
He always found a way. A few days later, we were walking out of his studio and he was congratulating me for “a job well done” on my Bill 10 TV interview with Mr Sangwa, Mr Nshindano and Fr Chikoya. I grew fond of my brother and his work.
Now, the very existence of his Prime TV was faced with extinction. I was driving at high speed to his office, remembering how I disagreed with his decision to apologise to government for initially refusing to air free COVID-19 adverts. Being a humble person that he was, he had argued with me that it was better to apologise for the mistake he had made than to show arrogance and attract a ruthless reaction from the government. Now, the worst that he feared was happening, despite his unreserved apology.
I desperately re-dialled his number for the umpteenth time, and he finally picked up.
“Ba boss, where are you going?” he inquired.
“I’m coming to your office. I have been trying to call you, where are you?”
“I have seen you, we just passed each other. Bwelelani kulibe viliko uko, police have taken over the building,” I could hear his suppressed voice as I turned down the volume from my car stereo where a presenter was analysing the COVID-19 cases in Zambia that had been announced that day.
As I made a U-turn to follow my brother who was in a convoy with his lawyer and an interview-seeking Muvi TV journalist, I decided to settle the persistent WhatsApp call which I had been avoiding earlier.
“Hello…” I said, as I prepared to disappoint the caller that this was not Mr Lusambo’s number.
I could not believe my ears. A well-placed government source was on the line, and had been trying to reach me with disturbing news that a COVID-19 patient had died over a day ago at the University Teaching Hospital, and neither the Minister of Health nor the President had announced the development in their public addresses. The source was concerned that the COVID-19 briefings were not giving out all the information that the public needed to hear.
With a sense of shame and guilt for not picking the call much earlier, I parked behind my brother’s car and spent some minutes getting more details of the tip off from the source on the UTH death which the government only announced later after we had published a story.
After my call, I walked over and realised that the Muvi TV journalist had also seized his moment to squeeze an interview out of the Prime TV proprietor, despite the fact that it had started showering. I wiped my phone to capture these last minutes of what still stands as the last interview my brother gave to the media since the government shut down his TV station on April 9, 2020.
We couldn’t talk much. He was rushing to the police to lodge an appeal to give him and his staff access to the building despite the licence being revoked.
Feeling even more helpless to the situation I had found at Prime TV, I drove back home, this time in front of the convoy, but I couldn’t hold back my tears. So I pulled over to catch my breath and to wait for the rains to subside and give me clearer visibility on the road, and it was only then that I realised I had left my spectacles at home. While on the roadside, I started counting the number of media houses that have been closed or whose licences have previously been suspended under the current government in Zambia. I couldn’t count them on one hand. They are many -- The Post, Copperbelt TV, Muvi TV, Itezhi-tezhi Radio, Komboni Radio, Jive FM, Ngoma Radio, Mwinilunga Radio, Valley FM, Luanginga Radio and Kwenje Radio. Others are Vision Macha, Kariba FM, Young Generation, Live FM, Ama FM, Pan African Radio, Comet 10 and Lutanda Radio; to mention but a few. And now added to this list is Prime TV!
How do I mourn the demise of Prime TV on this World Press Freedom Day? I dedicate this day to my elder brother Gerald Shawa. Don’t give up hope. I have nothing to give you, but I pour my heart to you, as I recite to you the same encouraging words you gave me at Northmead Assemblies Church that night.
Viva Press Freedom brother! Aluta continua!