THE Human Rights Commission (HRC) has called on government to immediately take practical steps to put an end to continued violation of media freedoms and freedom of expression by suspected PF cadres in Muchinga Province.

And Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG) says the continued attacks on the media are inimical to the country’s democracy.

On Monday evening, Iso FM in Isoka was attacked by suspected PF cadres, who threw a container with an unknown gas into the studio as a live phone programme was being aired on which UPND president Hakainde Hichilema featured.

According to Iso FM station manager Frederick Mkandawire, the mob of over 30 unknown people pounced on the station, overpowered security and demanded that the programme be stopped immediately.

This followed Mpika District Commissioner Moses Katebe’s instruction to Mpika FM to cancel a paid-for programme featuring Hichilema last week.

Commenting on the incident, HRC chairperson Mudford Mwandenga stated that such violent acts had the potential to contribute to widespread political violence as the country headed toward the August, 2021, general election.

“Media freedom and freedom of expression are fundamental human rights and critical to good governance and national development. Government has the primary responsibility to ensure that those who violate human rights are arrested and punished in accordance with the existing laws, while victims must be protected from continued abuse or violations. Government must decisively deal with such acts of lawlessness and human rights violations because they have potential to contribute to widespread political violence and, thereby, endangering the lives of journalists and other citizens, particularly during the countdown to the 2021 presidential and general election,” Mwandenga stated.

“The HRC strongly condemns the continued violation of media freedom and freedom of expression in Muchinga Province by suspected PF party supporters. The storming of Isoka Radio Station, Muchinga Radio Station and the cancellation of a paid-up programme on Mpika Radio Station to stop live radio broadcasting programmes featuring UPND leader Mr Hakainde Hichilema via a telephone interview are a systematic violation of human rights and criminal in nature and must not be allowed to continue. The Commission, therefore, calls on government to immediately take practical steps to stop the violations, criminal and undemocratic conduct to restore the constitutionally-guaranteed right to freedom of expression in Muchinga Province and, indeed, the whole country.”

He observed that despite Information and Broadcasting Services Minister Dora Siliya’s condemnation of the fracas, the attacks continued and were sanctioned by PF provincial chairperson Alex Simuwelu.

“Regrettably, the Commission has noted that even after government, through the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, Hon. Dora Siliya, MP, who is also the Chief Government Spokesperson, condemned the interference of programming on Mpika and Muchinga radio stations, the attacks on radio stations by suspected PF supporters have continued unabated. It would seem that the perpetrators ignored government guidance through Honourable Siliya and instead heeded to the call to block Mr Hichilema from speaking on any radio station in Muchinga Province, which was made through a press statement attributed to the ruling party’s Muchinga Province Chairperson, Mr Alex Simuwelu, on the same day the Minister held a press statement. Thus, there is general view that the cancellation of the radio programme on Mpika Radio station on 13th May, 2020, the attack of Muchinga Radio Station on 15th May, 2020, and Radio Isoka on 18th May, 2020, appear to be backed by the ruling party leadership going by the statement attributed to the PF provincial chairperson,” he stated.

And Mwandenga stated that the Commission remained concerned at police’s failure to arrest the perpetrators.

“The Commission is deeply concerned at the failure to arrest the identified cadres, who stormed Muchinga Radio station amidst a live programme, as well as taking action against the Mpika District Commissioner, Mr Moses Katebe, who cancelled the radio programme and Mr Simuwelu, whose statement bordered on discrimination, inciting hatred, violence and breach of peace. Government is urged to effectively meet its obligation of ensuring that both state and non-state actors refrain from engaging in such acts of gross human rights violations. Unless the perpetrators are brought to book, government will be seen to be failing in its duty to protect and promote human rights and instead allowing the violations to continue with impunity,” stated Mwandenga.

“It is, therefore, the Commission’s expectation that government will take practical action against the perpetrators of the said human rights violations as a matter of good governance, respect for human rights, constitutionalism and the rule of law. There is also need for a clear assurance by government to protect the right of everyone, including Mr Hichilema’s, to democratically participate in public affairs of this nation, anywhere in this country, on an equal footing with the ruling party, without any form of discrimination, intimidation and harassment.”

Meanwhile, in a separate statement, CCMG steering committee chairperson Father Cleophas Lungu stated that the acts of intimidation represented a restriction of press freedom, which was a fundamental component of the country’s democracy.

“CCMG is greatly concerned with the continued intimidation and harassment of the media. The world over, a free press plays an important role in a democratic society, allowing the dissemination of information and a space for the exchange of opinions and ideas. Particularly in these challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic, governments have a duty to uphold and protect the freedom of the press so that free information sharing is guaranteed. CCMG, thus, notes with concern the recent happenings aimed at limiting press freedom, censoring and intimidating the media. CCMG calls on government to take concrete actions to investigate and hold individuals accountable for any violations. We are concerned that these acts of intimidation represent a restriction of press freedom, which is a fundamental component of our democracy,” stated Fr Lungu.

“CCMG also calls on government officials to refrain from using their office to intimidate the media, and those who do be disciplined according to the appropriate procedures. Further, we call upon the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to play its role in providing protection to the media through existing statutes to ensure that media houses operate independent. As we prepare for the 2021 election, the media must remain free as part of a democratic, transparent and credible electoral process.”