We have observed for some time now that whenever State House Press Aide Amos Chanda is interviewed by local and international media on press freedom standards in Zambia, he never misses a line that says: “there is no journalist who is imprisoned in this country.” True to that fact, there had never been a journalist serving a (in line of duty) prison term under President Edgar Lungu’s government.
The reason why Mr Chanda likes to use that line is because he knows that elsewhere in the world, working journalists are potential prisoners. As soon as they publish anything critical of government, they go in. So, President Edgar Lungu’s spokesperson has been trying to paint a picture that this regime is so tolerant that citizens are free to express themselves through the press, and journalists are also at liberty to publish what they find newsworthy.
But that is not totally true at all. To start with, people need to know that the Zambian government oppresses journalism in so many ways. Some media houses are private, quite alright, but they are State-sponsored in one way or another. Some have written letters to State House requesting for advertising support in exchange for good publicity. Such newspapers, television and radio stations have sold their editorial independence to the State, and as such, they can never write anything critical of government and its leaders.
Journalists who work for such private media houses are not any different from those who are confined under public media. They have resources at their disposal, but they can’t investigate anyone in government or any corruption within the system. If, by any mistake an exposé is published, the media owner gets in hot soup and the advertising support from government is threatened or terminated. They may have all the fancy words in their journalism motto for their media house, but they know in their hearts that they are operating under the “sebana wikute” slogan.
This is one way through which the State obliterates functional journalism. They don’t necessarily send journalists to prison for exposing corrupt government deals; they just cripple the organisation’s income and further threaten other big corporate companies that wish to do business with such perceived ‘hostile media’.
If one media house stands out to be resilient to all such forms of oppression and intimidation, the State goes in foolhardy to physically shut it down, using all types of government instruments at their disposal. Without sending anyone to prison, that media house will simply cease to exist. This was the case with the late Post Newspaper. When it exposed evidence of the planned rigging of the 2016 elections, an operation was initiated to shut it down through a process that saw the newspaper editors beaten, detained for nights, but never prosecuted nor sent to jail.
There is no way that anyone can describe this as a free press. Counting the number of jailed journalists as a yardstick for press freedom is like judging a man’s hunger by looking at his stomach. Some men may have huge belies, like a woman whose expected date of delivery is approaching; yet they are starving.
This is why we say it is not accurate for Mr Chanda to say Zambia is a functioning democracy where the press is free to provide checks and balances, for the simple reason that there is no journalist serving time in prison.
But assuming that all the above was not true about media freedom in Zambia. We do now have a situation that the State House press aide has been waiting for. The editor-in-chief of Rainbow Newspaper was harshly jailed for alleging that there is corruption involving some known judges in the Judiciary. We already made our opinion clear last week on the irony that the complainants in this matter were also the judge and jury.
Our job today is to make an earnest appeal to Mr Chanda to engage President Lungu on this case. President Lungu has in the past forgiven an unrepentant sexual offender called General Kanene; a self-confessed rapist whose name appears in the police OB book more frequently than anyone can care to count. Why can’t President Lungu turn his head towards Editor Dereck Sinjela? We feel this is a matter that needs the President’s attention through Mr Amos Chanda.
Editor Sinjela is languishing in prison today, being the first one under President Lungu’s regime, for a ‘crime’ that is hard to comprehend. To be honest, we can actually bet on the fact that 99.9 per cent of the people who have learnt that this journalist was jailed for contempt actually never read the contemptuous article in question. Some have never even seen how the said Rainbow Newspaper looks like. It is the complainants in this case who actually brought this contemptuous article to the attention of the uninterested public.
But be that as it may, our colleague was remorseful. He apologized to the panel of judges and said he had learnt his lesson, vowing never to repeat his mistake. But he was still condemned to prison. Why? State House needs to intervene.
Mr Chanda has proved to have the right amount of influence on President Lungu in the past – judging by the fact that the Head of State has granted him permission to speak, not only on his behalf, but the entire Cabinet as well. The challenge is on him now to demonstrate that, indeed, President Lungu is a listening Head of State. Editor Sinjela did not rape anyone; he assaulted nobody and never stole anyone’s property. He made a mistake in his line of duty, for which he is remorseful, like any human being in any profession.
Please, Mr Chanda, step in and save your fellow media colleague from spending the whole of 2019 and half of next year in prison. Bring him out so that his media outlet can also take a bite at the hype of the 2021 general elections. Mr Chanda, you already rank very high among the most approachable and friendly press aides Zambia has ever had, getting Sinjela out will definitely win you more kudos from the media fraternity. We believe we speak for many other journalists when we say freeing Sinjela will give us hope that we have a Presidential spokesperson who cares about our interests in the governance of this country. #FreeSinjela!