IPI Blog: Zambia needs to recognize that press freedom doesn't hinge on government-friendly reporting
Threats against UNZA Radio and the media must be condemned
By: Naomi Hunt, Senior Press Freedom Adviser
VIENNA, Sep 7, 2012 - The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services in Zambia has threatened to close down a university radio station because it aired the views of opposition leaders and criticised the ministry's efforts to interfere with coverage of the current government, according to news reports and local journalists.
The permanent secretary at the information ministry, Amos Malupenga, warned on Tuesday that UNZA Radio would be closed down if it continued to depart "from its original mandate of being a teaching facility to a platform for advancing partisan interests", according to a report in the government-owned Times of Zambia.
Malupenga said that he would take "corrective measures" against other stations violating their license agreements, and "would not allow illegality to thrive in the media industry under the guise of freedom of information", the report said.
According to Mutale Macpherson, station manager at UNZA Radio, tensions between the station and the ministry snowballed last week, after Malupenga held a press briefing "where all media were required to attend" in which the permanent secretary criticised the way in which media were covering the government.
The next day, Macpherson said, students hosting a morning magazine called the Lusaka Star "had a discussion that the P.S. shouldn't interfere and [should] allow journalists to do their work". The station subsequently received two letters from Malupenga's office. The first was a summons, the second a warning that the station's license could be revoked, Macpherson said.
On Tuesday this week, Macpherson and a colleague went to see Malupenga, where, Macpherson says, they received a "two hour lecture" about the station's conduct. Malupenga was reportedly irritated that on the very day of their meeting, the Lusaka Star had hosted a leader from an opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), who discussed on air how the party's headquarters had recently been raided and who complained that many media were afraid to host UPND officials.
Malupenga also reportedly complained that UNZA Radio was using a transmitter that allowed its broadcast to reach beyond its allowed limits. When Macpherson returned to his office later that day, officials came by to replace the station's 1000 watt transmitter with a 500 watt transmitter. They came back again later to switch it out for a 260 watt version. Macpherson complained: "I said you are the ones who issued the license, who empowered us to broadcast to 1000 watts!"
Malupenga called Macpherson again the next day, upset that students were criticizing him on air, Macpherson said. Malupenga assured the station manager his business would be shut down, and insinuated that he could lose his job, Macpherson said
Malupenga was an IPI member in his previous capacity as managing editor of The Post.
"He's not a politician, we didn't expect this to come from him," Macpherson told IPI. When the current Patriotic Front-led government was in opposition, UNZA Radio regularly hosted their officials, and continues to host P.F. officials today, Macpherson said.
A reporter from another radio station, who didn't wish to be named for fear of retribution, told a similar story: "What is happening, for a long time, is [UNZA radio has] been inviting political party leaders to discuss issues of the country especially with regard to the ruling party. So in this instance [government has] threatened with revocation, [which] has to do with the opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema from the U.P.N.D. who was using their platform to air grievances and criticize government for failing to fulfil promises. So government feels that the radio station has been flouting its conditions attached to the license."
He added: "Just like any other opposition leader, [current President] Michael Sata also used this radio station to voice concerns or even criticise the previous government."
The outlook for UNZA Radio seems grim if events elsewhere are anything to go by. At another college radio, Hone FM, a station manager lost his job in August "following perceived political allegiance to the opposition", the Media Institute of Southern Africa reported, citing a report in The Post newspaper. Evelyn Hone College, where Malupenga reportedly received his journalism certificate, is primarily funded by the state, MISA reported.
Clayson Hamasaka was reportedly sacked after the station advertised a call-in program with an opposition leader that did not, in the end, take place. The deposed station chief told MISA "he would have still allowed Hichilema on air because that is the kind of media freedom they espouse at the radio station".
These are not the only instances in which critical media have lately been targeted. President Michael Sata brought a number of libel suits against opposition figures and opposition-aligend media, and in July, officials from the ruling Patriotic Front called for the "closure of online publications, owing to them allegedly being used by opposition political parties to attack and insult government officials and church leaders", according to a report from IT Web Africa.
The series of recent threats that are reported to be coming from the Ministry of Information, and in particular from Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga, are alarming. For example, in a statement reproduced by the Lusaka Times, the state-owned news agency ZANIS reported that government would take "punitive measures against media institutions that frustrate the good image of the Government".
These intimidating statements appear to be a retraction of earlier promises to uphold media freedom. In April, former Information Minister Fackson Shamenda assured journalists that the government would not regulate media coverage of government affairs. (Shamenda has since been replaced by Kennedy Sakeni. The man who held the post before Shamenda, Given Lubinda, had promised that passage of a long-awaited Freedom of Information bill would be "one of our benchmarks within the first 90 days of the P.F. government", according to an Oct. 2011 article in The Post).
Officials in the current government have said great things about press freedom, but recent comments about the media make it seem as though they've forgotten that press freedom does not hinge on media meekness. Of course journalists should work in an ethical and professional manner. But even caustic and critical media have a right to freedom of the press. If journalists commit crimes or harm other individual rights, there are specific laws that can be employed by the state or turned to by the injured parties.
Under no circumstances should the rights of the media be curtailed because they offer harsh or even derisive criticism of political leaders. It is positive for the media to present a robust diversity of views and opinions, even those which might be controversial or very harsh.
According to the Zambian Eye, last week Malupenga "urged journalists not to give space to such politicians whose sole aim is character assassination". If he phrased it like that, this is a problematic statement. On one hand it is surely wrong to defame people - but defamation is not the same as harsh criticism, and defamation laws should be written so that the truth of a statement can be a defence, the burden of proof lies with the complainant, the right to express opinions is protected, and so that public figures must accept a higher level of scrutiny.
Malupenga should know that press freedom protects raucous speech, having previously served as managing editor at The Post, a newspaper known for its extremely harsh criticisms of officials from the former ruling party, particularly former President Rupiah Banda.
For instance, before Malupenga joined the new government last year, The Post ran an article entitled "President Banda has gone bonkers, says Mpombo," which quoted a politician as saying Banda was "degenerating into a situation called senile-dementia and the man has no morality". In 2009 it ran a story based entirely on comments from Michael Sata, now the president of Zambia, in which the paper paraphrases Sata to say that "Banda is under pressure and his conscience is troubling him", that "President Banda had ended up piling lies upon lies," and that "President Banda was a very ignorant man".
IPI has vehemently defended the right of Zambian media (and all media) to offer even extremely caustic criticisms of public figures. In a 2010 report on press freedom in the country, IPI criticised government efforts to intimidate journalists, regulate the media by statute, or influence radio stations by threatening to revoke their licenses. IPI noted at the time that "it is not the place of government to interfere on matters of journalistic ethics", and that "[i]t is the media itself that is best suited to deal with ethical breaches, because any government regulation of media ethics places a limitation on press freedom".
Politicians are expected to have an agenda and criticise their opponents, but when they start threatening media houses just for giving others a place to speak, they are endangering much more than the opposition.