I read, with a deep sense of consternation, when a colleague shared parts of the proposed IBA Act of 2021 to be cited as the “Independent Broadcasting Authority 2021.” Its short introductory section reads “An Act to continue the Independent Broadcasting Authority; facilitate pluralism and diversity in the broadcasting industry; protect rights of consumers; regulate broadcasting; repeal and replace the IBA Act No.17 of 2002…” I ask, what rights, which consumers? The logic and spirit of large sections of this proposed Bill do not reflect the stated intention of protecting or promoting the rights of consumers. It seems to be constructed in ways that will make it difficult, if not punitive, for citizens that seek to enjoy these rights – of freedom of expression, of freedom to hold and share opinions, of the freedom of the press. Based on the history and conduct of the IBA since its operationalisation in 2013, despite achieving a quantitative leap in the number of broadcasting licences, the Authority has come short on many occasions when enforcing regulatory measures against ‘erring’ broadcasting institutions.

Historically, the Zambian State has had a conflictual relationship with the journalism profession. In recent years, this situation has gotten more intense, and the heavy state regulation has had negative ripple effects on our democracy. With the advent of the internet, digital spaces and social media, citizens, and journalists alike have used these platforms to circumvent this near omnipresence in the mainstream spaces. However, recent regressive measures by the state to encroach on digital spaces in pursuit of regulating free speech and freedom of expression among citizens present a danger to growing our democracy.

On the face of it, one would think the IBA is fulfilling its mandate of promoting the broadcast media industry. Well, until one starts looking at the sequence of events that led up to the censures of shutdowns of news broadcast institutions. The relationship between the censorship of these news outlets and their political stance or in most instances their political guests that feature on these platforms tells a different story. The IBA is being used to stifle divergent political views in Zambia. This fact of acts is hard to miss. The list of unjustifiable gags is long, but I can cite the notable ones including MUVI Television back in 2016 and Prime Television back in 2020. Several other radio stations such as Hot FM and UNZA Radio have recently been censured on different occasions. On this score, it has been evident that the IBA has been used as a tool to enforce the political will of the ruling parties. All the cited cases above involved a falling out over opposing voices or divergent views that were featured on these news outlets.

Under Part I, Section (2), the interpretation, the newly proposed IBA Act of 2021 describes broadcasting to be “any form of transmission of audio or audio-visual content intended for reception by a.) the public; b.) sections of the public; or c.) subscribers to any broadcasting service, regardless of the means of transmission. Further, Part III Section 21 (1) provides that “The Board shall, in respect of subsection (1), issue the following classes of licence: (a) radio; (b) television; (c) online broadcasting; (d) subscriber management service; (e) landing rights; (f) any other class of licence or a combination of broadcast services;” I will restrict my comments to subsections c, d, e and f because this is uncharted waters in the Zambian context.

What is it that the government today has seen or experienced with online streaming platforms that have necessitated this rush to enact this law specifically targeting this space? How do they want to implement this in practical terms? Digital and social media are often regarded as borderless media, are they planning on shutting down the internet for citizens as one way to achieve their regulatory objectives? Remember the case of the Zambian Watchdog server targeting? Is this a new attempt at something similar? What does subscriber management service have to do with regulating the social media space other than for the state to want to monitor or control the revenue of a private citizen or business? The clause of landing rights is anticipatory as it seeks to forestall entities or individuals who seek to establish their broadcast or online broadcast platform outside the borders of Zambia. In this sense, this clause makes one liable to the penalties prescribed in the Act and would face the same penalties as one operating from within the geographical jurisdiction of Zambia. To what end is it aimed at? Should citizens who already have such platforms with huge subscriber bases be made to apply for a license once this law is enacted? Why must citizens have to get a licence to enjoy their political and civic rights enshrined within our Constitution? Article 20 of the Constitution provides that every citizen has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. To this end, I would go as far as to assert here that parts of this proposed IBA Act of 2021 are unconstitutional and must therefore not see the light of day.

Perhaps one of the subsections which look harmless yet could prove to be potentially hazardous is (f) any other class of licence or a combination of broadcast services. The ambiguity in “any other” here is broad and presents room for abuse of powers by the state through the IBA or the Minister in charge. This leaves room for surprise pronouncements that are not captured in the specific subsections. Why should a law leave grey areas when it should be clear and definitive to allay any fears in future? Zambian Ministers have an infamous penchant for being the law unto themselves or using the law within themselves to guide their actions. Is this another such instance where we are leaving room for such?

I know this repeal and replace process began circa 2018/2019 but has gathered momentum in the last few months for what many believe is a reaction to increased platforms with dissenting voices that continue to thrive in the digital and social media space. A quick scan of the social media and political front shows individuals who are thriving in offering opposing views and voices to express themselves and attracting large numbers of subscribers, viewers, and followers. Now, we may not all agree with these individuals’ views and how they express themselves. Their writeups and livestreams are often loaded with a lot of inaccuracies and misinformation. However, their right and freedom of expression cannot and should not be taken away on these premises. These are inalienable rights that these individuals, and indeed all citizens enjoy by the very fact that they are human and citizens and are not conditional.

Although these individuals and others are the perceived targets of this law at present, the implications, and consequences of such a law on the statute books are wider and will potentially affect all citizens who are deemed to be on the wrong side of the law, or, putting it bluntly, on the wrong side of politics. We must not let that happen. We saw what happened under the PF when they went on a rampage in their last years in power, assaulting news media outlets and journalists both literally and using lawfare as well as extrajudicial means. Journalists were publicly harassed in their line of work, in their studios, in newsrooms etc. Citizens equally were often targeted by both state security wings and party cadres for expressing divergent political views. The UPND government cannot go this route at this point or any other point for that matter. This government gave us a watered-down version of the Access To Information Law, which effectively rendered it a useless law for the intended purpose. Now this government is using the proposed IBA Act of 2021 to muzzle journalism & citizens’ rights, who use online platforms to freely express themselves. This space, just like the mainstream marketplace of ideas and expression must remain free from any overbearing statutory restrictions. The mainstream space has been under assault and the pushback must continue. The online space is now the last bastion of the defence of our freedom and right of expression, the freedom to hold and share opinions on national issues affecting our nation. We cannot let that go away at the snap of a finger or our democracy will suffer irreparable damage.

There are several clauses and sections of this proposed Bill particularly under Part III that are problematic and quite frankly are antithetical, anti-democratic and defying logic as to the purpose they will serve other than to subvert citizens’ rights and undermine our freedoms. I would go on discussing these but for lack of time and space, suffice to say this is unacceptable! This is not progress! This is simply BAD for our fledgling democracy. Digital media restrictions are a danger to society & are retrogressive. We must defend & promote the upholding of our #freedomofexpression and the #pressfreedom in #Zambia.

(The author is a Lecturer in Media Studies, Political Communication, and Journalism and an advocate for press freedom and freedom of expression. Send any feedback to [email protected] )