The Zambian government is drafting a law intended to address online media and tackle “Internet abuse” and cybercrime. Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary Bert Mushala made mention of the law in the company of the Information Minister Dr. Joseph Katema, while the pair toured media houses in the Copperbelt Province, about 400 km north of the capital, Lusaka.
Katema, according to a story on the Zambian Watchdog which was originally reported by mainstream Post, said Zambians in some areas were being starved of credible information because certain online media and other publications spent their time insulting and spreading falsehoods at the expense of accurate, factual reporting and developmental issues.
It's the intention of the PF government to broaden the information base to reach out to the public. Government is cognisant of the information gap, that is why we are putting policies in place that support media growth. You see a lot of Christian radio stations and private stations coming up now than ever,” he said. “But the onus is on you [journalists], because the people of Zambia will no longer take gossip seriously, people are starved of information but if all you do is sit on the computer, start chatting and gossiping….
Mushala, seemingly complementing Minister Katema’s answers to the questions by journalists after the tour of media houses, said media organisations and personnel would be involved in the formulation of the media policy to address cyber crime and related abuses. “There is a questionnaire that is being distributed, you will all be given to fill in before you are invited for the big indaba [national conference],” he told journalists. “We really have to address this situation.”
The statement from the two government officials does not come as a surprise to Zambian media observers. Since the Patriotic Front (PF) took office in 2011, there have been attempts to muzzle citizen media websites such as the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports. Both sites have been blocked within the country on multiple occasions, and authorities have openly expressed ire towards the Watchdog. A recent article on Zambia Reports announced that the government had unblocked the two websites, allegedly due to pressure from international bodies and co-operating partners. Although it is impossible to know precisely what motivated authorities to change their minds, an anonymous source told Zambia Reports, “The warning from our international partners has been very strong so the authorities are trying to observe what will happen by unlocking the websites.”
A United States 2013 State Department Country Report on Human Rights Practices for Zambia was particularly damning in its depiction of Zambian authorities clamping down on online news websites:
From June 24 to July 16, the government blocked access to the antigovernment online publication the Zambian Watchdog on all but one internet service provider (ISP). As of July 16, the Zambian Watchdog was no longer accessible from Zambia-based ISPs. The Zambian Watchdog relocated to a different domain name and continued to operate its Facebook page, which was accessible. Vice President Guy Scott acknowledged in the National Assembly on June 28 that the government restricted the website domestically. Officials arrested three suspected contributors to the Zambian Watchdog, Clayson Hamasaka, Thomas Zgambo, and Wilson Pondamali, and charged them with “possessing obscene material,” “possession of seditious material with intent to publish,” and “unlawful possession of a restricted military pamphlet,” respectively. Two other online blogs, Zambia Reports and Barotse Reports, were also blocked, although both were available on Facebook and through non-Zambian ISPs.
Commenting on the Zambian Watchdog story, angoni chaiwo wrote [comments do not have permalinks]:
i doubt if they will succeed; ba [Mr] katema and ba [Mr] mushala you will soon need the same media which you don’t like. Just improve the economy, and give us the constitution.
Indeed, Zambians will have to wait and see how soon the PF government will enact the Internet law. The party's generally slow-moving legislative habits suggest this may take some time — a good sign for media rights advocates to be sure.