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Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Zambia

Publisher Committee to Protect Journalists
Publication Date February 1998
Cite as Committee to Protect Journalists, Attacks on the Press in 1997 - Zambia, February 1998, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/47c5655ac.html [accessed 29 November 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

After President Frederick Chiluba's November 1996 election to a second five-year term in controversial elections boycotted by opposition parties, the president and his party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), continued their persistent campaign against the independent press, specifically targeting individual editors and journalists in a blatant pattern of criminalization of their work. Using the country's harsh media laws, a number of MMD leaders, including President Chiluba and Vice President Godfrey Miyanda, are pursuing criminal defamation suits and other legal actions against the media. There are more court cases pending against journalists in Zambia than anywhere else in Africa, the state's intention being to financially incapacitate the independent press. While the overburdened judiciary has shown autonomy in the disposition of some of these cases, it has appeared influenced by the executive branch in others.

The government's most zealous critic is The Post, an independent newspaper launched in 1991 several months before the MMD government came to power. Since then, it has been served with more than 100 writs. Editor in chief Fred M'membe – a 1995 winner of CPJ's International Press Freedom Award – and some of his senior editorial staff have been detained for weeks in dangerously overcrowded jails where scurvy, malaria, and tuberculosis are common. Several of the The Post's staff face the prospect of up to 25 years in jail in on-going court cases. M'membe alone could be sentenced to more than 100 years' imprisonment for more than 50 suits, the first of which went before the High Court in January.

Recognizing that a free press and an active civil society are the main threats to its hold on power, Chiluba's government in January tried to introduce regulatory legislation in the form of a media council bill, which called for compulsory registration of journalists and gave the council powers to reprimand, suspend, or withdraw their accreditation. Failure to comply could result in prison terms and fines. The legislation was unanimously rejected by five of the country's major media organizations. In February, the Zambian Independent Media Association (ZIMA) established the Independent Media Council, maintaining that an independent council rather than a legislated body was the best regulatory solution and would provide a mechanism for complaints. Bowing to intense pressure from journalists, in April the government withdrew the bill, and in July, ZIMA began a weekly radio show called "Facing the Media" to highlight the activities of ZIMA's new council and other press issues in the country.

On August 22, the Zambian High Court ruled in favor of the Press Association of Zambia (PAZA); this voluntary association of journalists had challenged the government's 1995 decision to replace it with a statutory body with mandatory membership for all journalists. The government said it would appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The state controls television as well as the mainstream newspapers, which constitute 90 percent of the print media. There are an estimated 700,000 television sets in the country and about half the population has access to them. Most newspapers are sold in the capital and in mining towns in the north and south. Few copies reach the rest of the country and no joint distribution organization exists. Privately owned newspapers, which have scant financial backing, have been particularly hard hit by the increasing cost of newsprint and falling circulation. In February, The Post, which receives only 35 percent of its income from advertising, was forced to double its cover price.

As part of an ongoing national disinvestment program – one of the most successful in Africa-a bill was introduced to parliament in early October to privatize the Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail, and the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC). But affairs of state ground to a halt on October 28, when coup plotters calling themselves the National Redemption Council briefly took control of ZNBC, only to be crushed by a government strike force three hours later. The following day, under a state of emergency declared by President Chiluba, police were granted sweeping powers to search homes and detain anyone indefinitely for interrogation. Since the failed coup, government pressures on the independent press, including surveillance and denial of printing facilities, have increased significantly.

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