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[OPINION] Zambian media and the fight against oppression

To hold a pen is to be at war - Voltaire.

A crisis is unfolding in Zambia where press freedom is under attack. This is according to Dr Fred M’membe, the founder of The Post newspaper. M’membe is a multi-award winning journalist who is recognised by various institutions, including the International Press Institute (IPI) for being fearless and outspoken.

As editor-in-chief of Zambia's leading independent daily, M’membe frequently faces harassment from authorities. The Post’s investigations into government corruption and abuses of power have been a thorn in the flesh of the governing party the Patriotic Front (PF). It has resulted in more than 50 lawsuits being filed against him and he has faced more than 100 years in jail over the course of his career. M’membe says the administration of President Lungu doesn't know that power has limits.

“There is an attempt to completely destroy The Post so that it is impossible to reconstruct it. It is a process which started many years ago. There were some restraints in the previous regimes, but this regime has no restraint whatsoever.”

It seems M’membe’s concerns about Lungu’s abuse of power are well founded. In September 2015 the Zambian president threatened him while addressing a crowd in Solwezi, in the North Western part of Zambia.

According to the Lusaka Voice, Lungu made the following chilling statement:

“I want to tell Fred M’membe that I have thrown away the lid. The battle lines have been drawn, but the truth is that Fred cannot fight me because I am Head of State. If he wants to fight me, let him fight me. But let’s be fair; he has the power of the newspaper, I don’t have. But the truth is that M’membe cannot fight me because I am Head of State…Alefwayafye ukwakufwila (he is looking for death) I will not close your newspaper shamwari (my friend) but I will take you on.”

The Lungu administration has also been accused of rigging the 2016 elections. Zambia’s main opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema, of the United Party for National Development (UPND), accused the country’s electoral commission of colluding with the Patriotic Front to rig the outcome of the vote after it delayed in announcing the results.

Shadrack Chiluba* was a senior investigative journalist for The Post. He says media houses are under siege in Zambia. Journalists work in an environment of fear where they are harassed, arrested and their lives threatened.

“If you write a news story criticising the manner in which Edgar Lungu’s PF is managing the situation just know that you will receive threats, you’re going to be harassed if they know you, and they are willing to go to any lengths possible to silence any opposing view away from theirs.”

In 2014 Transparency International reported that corruption was wreaking havoc with the economy, and the payment of bribes had reached levels of 78% in a country where approximately 60% of the population is illiterate and poor.

M’membe believes the Zambian government is using state institutions to bully independent media houses like The Post for being outspoken against the government.

The Zambian Revenue Authority (ZRA) placed The Post under liquidation for 53 million kwatcha, (approximately R6 million) for unpaid taxes. But the paper disputed the amount and appealed to the Revenue Appeals Tribunal to reverse the liquidation. The tribunal, which is a specialised court on tax issues, ordered the ZRA to reopen The Post, and to return all the equipment of the paper, including printing machines, and vehicles which had been confiscated. It’s a decision that the ZRA has consistently ignored.

Other media houses have also not been spared. Muvi TV, Komboni Radio and Itezhi Itezhi Radio were shut down by the government in August 2016. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) suspended their broadcasting licenses for unprofessional conduct, claiming they posed a risk to national peace and stability. But they were reopened a few months later. This move has been interpreted as a form of intimidation to force media houses into adopting the party line.

Shadrack says in spite of the conditions in that country, he and other journalists have a duty to keep writing to ensure that the majority of people in Zambia, most of whom are poor, are able to have an independent platform through which critical issues, can be publicised.

“The people are looking for hope and I believe that as a journalist we must give people an ear. They need to be listened to, that’s what it means to be a voice to the voiceless. If we all lose hope we will crumble.”

Another writer Tasilla Lungu* says she has been victimised for carrying out her duties as a journalist. Like her colleagues in that country she too has experienced pressure from those in authority to ‘tone down’ her reporting.

“I’m on the right side of history. There is a lot of oppression of independence and I know it is not right and it is not something we should tolerate as a nation. It’s not a trend we should accept as journalists. If we don’t do anything now it will continue. If it means reporting the truth, I will report the truth and that’s what comforts me,” Lungu says.

But that’s not the end of the story for The Post. Since its closure it has re-emerged with a new name, The Mast, and with a small team of journalists who write and print from a secret location. It is carrying on with the tradition of The Post by positioning itself as a publication that gives a platform to the poor and working class in that country.

Certainly as South Africans, our voices should shout loud and clear. The situation in Zambia is unacceptable. During the darkest days of apartheid, Zambians played a critical role in providing a home base for South Africans fleeing oppression. The Zambian government of that time risked major repercussions from the diabolical South African regime. It hosted the leadership of the ANC, and the SACP as well as other liberation movements. It provided accommodation, military training and other crucial support. The people of Zambia opened their homes and hearts to South Africans in peril.

It is because of this history that the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) cannot ignore the situation facing media workers in that country. As a trade union we will not be silent when basic democratic principles are being violated, and workers are suffering.

Furthermore, as journalists and media workers in this country we have a duty to express solidarity with our comrades in Zambia and on the rest of the continent. If we were unfortunate enough to find ourselves in the same position, who would speak for us? Who would rise to our defence? We have no choice. We must speak out on behalf of the Zambian people. If we truly believe in democratic values, we must be uncompromising in our condemnation of such heinous acts.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” - Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

*Names have been changed to protect identities.

Phakamile Hlubi is a journalist and spokesperson for Numsa.

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