Freedom of the press is unnecessary if the people to whom it is granted are not allowed to think for themselves. Freedom of the Press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose. But this is not the case in Zambia where politicians dictate how much and how often they must be criticised.

Addressing the nation on ZNBC last evening to launch commemorative activities of the 2018 World Press Freedom Day, Information Minister Dora Siliya said government would not sit idle and watch people spread hate speech through the Internet.

“Government has a responsibility to protect its citizens against unscrupulous people who are using social media and other online platforms to spread fake news, hate speech, rumours and propaganda just to mislead and create despondency and chaos among citizens. As citizens, you have the right to be protected against bad media practitioners. In this regard, I am working closely with the Ministers of Justice and Transports and Communications to strengthen existing defamation laws and provide for cyber laws,” said Siliya.

Ironically though, the adopted theme for this year’s World Press Freedom Day in Zambia is “Keeping Power in Check…” So, if government is proceeding to reinforce existing defamation laws and add new Internet regulation laws, how will this power be kept in check? If those in power decide what is hate speech and what is propaganda; if politicians want to decide what is a rumour and what is verified news worth publishing, then where is the freedom of the press? Are there not enough laws that protect people from slander, libel and defamation?

We do not think that our government leaders are so dull that they cannot distinguish between official news outlets and fake news and propaganda channels. That would be like us, the journalists questioning the sanity of politicians in Zambia and citing Mr Alex Mulyokela as an example. How fair would that be?

So to put media houses in the same cluster with any person who has an Internet connection for publishing insults, and enacting laws to regulate this group of publishers is a deliberate ploy meant to muzzle the critical press.

The way governments infringe on media freedoms takes many different shapes depending on their desire, and this is one form chosen by the PF regime to silence real news ahead of 2021 elections, in addition to impending physical harassment and beatings.

What they want from all these desperate maneuvers is control of what the public should hear and read. They know that a controlled press is incapable of unearthing graft, fraud, theft, corruption, bribery, embezzlement and smuggling activities, which are inherent in the ruling bourgeois class.

What has partly accounted for the disappointing level of development in Nchelenge, Shang’ombo, Zambezi and Chadiza is the fact that a good portion of the money that should have been used to improve the standard of housing, educational facilities, transportation system, health and medical facilities, agricultural production and productivity etc, ends up in the private pockets and banked overseas where journalists can’t see.

They are here sending police to arrest Kambwili for allegedly keeping proceeds of crime in Zanaco Bank, but State House proceeds of crime are in the Seychelles, Mauritius, Dubai and elsewhere. It’s just a matter of time, we will get there and we will let the citizens know where their money is kept. When that is done and we are allowed to walk the streets freely, then we will clap for those in government for allowing a free press. For now, our Press Freedom is a sham – if a simple New York dossier can annoy the entire presidency.

The ruling elite will claim that there is a free press in the country because there is no single journalist in jail today. The truth is that those in control of State apparatus don’t even have the decency to argue with a journalist in court, they simply beat and discharge.

Under President Edgar Lungu, we have seen so many journalists being arrested for Defamation of the President, and related oppressive charges, but the State has never recorded a conviction on those matters. Many cases are discontinued or allowed to die a natural death. Meanwhile, they would have achieved their intention of imparting fear in the journalist.

Even those who were behind the closure of The Post newspaper boast, in the corridors of power that if they had advanced any media laws, they would not have succeeded to shut down the influential company. So they crafted a crooked tax claim in order to hide their intended motive of silencing the ‘unwanted’ news. In the process, they arbitrary arrested the editors who resisted the illegal shut down, physically tortured them and placed them in detention, but never proceeded to prosecute them for any offence. Is that not a sign that they don’t want their power to be kept in check?

Politicians do recognise the fact that media, especially newspapers which operate outside the IBA regulations, wield a lot of influence. That is why private newspapers are mostly in danger during election years. In the eyes of the politicians, we are just but tools for staying in power or a bridge to State House. Politicians in Zambia are right now positioning themselves to see which media house they can ride on in 2021. Those in power are currently evaluating the loyalty of media institutions. Institutions considered hostile will not be in existence by August 2021.

Those in power appreciate the role of private media when they need a platform to launder themselves. When they are accused of corruption, and public perception paints them black, they get infatuated to engage a private media house so that they can plead innocent or hit back at their accusers. After that is achieved, they shut the door again and return to their bourgeois lifestyle, leaving no open channel for journalists to query their activities.

In the long run, the press in Zambia has been silenced to reporting news from politicians’ written speeches. They don’t have the courage to question criminal activities among the ruling elite, and those who try to exercise bravery, are met with all types of bribery offers.

The sad part about press freedom in Zambia is that the oppressors are not only those who want to stay in power. We are yet to identify a political party that truly appreciates the role of an independent press. The manifestos of those in opposition boast about useless pledges to promote a free press when they form government, but the reality is that they are not open to criticism.
We are also under siege from those who desperately want to get into power. From our own experience, the UPND leadership is just as intolerant of a free press as the PF, if not worse. If anything, the UPND in State House, and in control of the police would even be more aggressive and brutal to journalists who challenge their opinions. Yes, there are some people in the UPND leadership who don’t support this approach, but there is no political will in the top leadership to exercise tolerance.

But we have a message to the PF, UPND and all the other political parties that would like to use media platforms such as ours for political gain. To us, news is what you DON’T want us to publish, anything else is PR!