Judge a country by the company it keeps

By Richard Lee | February 20th, 2014

Most people hear little about Zambia and so assume that all is well. But it’s not.  Things are very far from well. And they’re getting worse.

And to understand this all you need to do is glance at the 2013 Risk List produced by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which groups Zambia alongside the likes of Egypt, Liberia, Syria, Russia and Vietnam. It is not an enviable set of bedfellows.

It shows how far Zambia has fallen in the last year because this is not a list of the worst violators of press freedom but rather countries that have registered the most significant deterioration in the media environment over the past year. And there is no doubt that the CPJ’s conclusion that the space in Zambia for ‘free expression and independent newsgathering is rapidly shrinking’.

As is the space for democratic debate and civil society activism and dissenting voices.

But the narrowing of the media space in Zambia is particularly worrying since the Patriotic Front (PF) government promised a new era of freedom of expression. Indeed, both President Michael Sata and Vice-President Guy Scott had successfully used the press to boost their campaign to run the country – and most people (naively as it turned out) believed that they would give others the same opportunity.

Instead, as the CPJ makes clear, Zambia in 2013 was ‘marked by the continuous and public vilification of the press by authorities, and the systematic muzzling of journalists through the courts’.

And CPJ lists the main concerns from pressurising the state-owned press to self-censor more than ever, closing the small space that had opened open for independent journalists, and invoking repressive criminal defamation laws to intimidate journalists.

In particular, the government has ‘pursued independent journalists with a series of vague and spurious charges’, which are clearly intended to silence alternative voices and intimidate investigate reporters. And launched a concerted attack on the independent news website Zambia Reports. All of which illustrate that the authorities are prepared to use the full force of the law and the police to ensure that Zambians only get a diet of pro-PF news.

Obviously, the aim is to strengthen Sata’s grip on power and to help secure him a second term in office. But if his plan fails and the PF is defeated – you can bet your bottom kwacha that he and Guy Scott (and the rest of the PF leadership) will be the first to cry violation of their right to free expression when they find that they can no longer air their views so easily in the media.

It will, of course, serve them right. But it will not be only them who suffer. Every Zambian will lose out if this onslaught on press freedom in the country is not reversed.

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