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LUSAKA, Nov 10 2009 (IPS) - When journalists were beaten by political supporters for covering the president’s return trip from abroad, and cabinet ministers and police officers looked on without stopping it, it seemed to be the last straw in the victimisation of the media. But it was not.
The Zambian media have always had a dodgy relationship with politicians, depending on whether they are in government or opposition, but never before have the attacks been so intense and frequent.
Last month journalists from both the public and private press had to scamper for their safety when political cadres stormed the Zambia Institute of Mass Communication (Zamcom), where Robbie Chizyuka, suspended United Party for National Development (UPND) Member of Parliament for Namwala, was addressing a press briefing.
It is believed the UPND supporters were opposed to Chizyuka’s speaking critically of the party. His own party members have accused him of being a "traitor".
Then, a few weeks later, political party cadres attacked journalists from various media organisations, and confiscated recorders during a forum being addressed by George Mpombo. The former minister of defence’s attacks on government in the media have infuriated the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD).
This petition followed the beating up of Times of Zambia senior reporter Antony Mulowa, photojournalist Richard Mulonga and The Post reporter Chibaula Silwamba by cadres from the MMD in the presence of several cabinet ministers and police officers. The journalists were beaten at the Lusaka International Airport, where they had gone to cover President Banda’s return from a trip abroad.
The joint petition was signed by several of the country’s leading media institutes including the: Press Association of Zambia (PAZA); Zambia Media Women Association (ZAMWA); Zambia Union of Journalists (ZUJ); Press Freedom Committee of The Post; United Nations Information Centre; Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zambia (MISA-Zambia); and PANOS Institute Southern Africa.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa-Zambia says it is deeply concerned at the unsafe working environment of the media, especially during press conferences on controversial political issues.
"MISA-Zambia urges the government and police to address the problem immediately before lives are lost, or serious injuries take place. Zambia is a democratic state in which citizens have the right to enjoy their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, which include freedom of expression and the right to access information," says MISA-Zambia president Henry Kabwe.
Lieutenant-General Ronnie Shikapwasha, the chief government spokesperson, says both the ruling party and the government do not condone the harassment of journalists.
"Government condemns in the strongest terms the reported violence against the men and women in the media. It is criminal, uncalled-for and unacceptable, and the government’s position on this matter is loud, clear and consistent," says Shikapwasha.
But Shikapwasha says the media should be professional, and adhere to the ethical requirements of journalism, because careless reporting can lead to turmoil in the country.
For a long time now, Zambian journalists have been demanding speedy media-law reforms, as well as the creation of an Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) and enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill (FOI).
Andrew Sakala, PAZA president, says the government should enact the FOI Bill and establish an IBA to foster media development.
"We as PAZA expect that this year’s media reforms should continue, meaning the IBA should be operationalised this year, so that there are no restrictions on how broadcasting journalists and houses conduct their work. The FOI Bill has also stalled for a long time without implementation," he says.
But Shikapwasha, who is also the information and broadcasting services minister, says the process of selecting board members to the IBA has started, and he expects the ratification of its members before the end of the year.
The government will also soon present to Parliament the FOI, which once implemented, will enhance access to public information and promote transparency, he says.
But in August, Vice-President George Kunda challenged media bodies to come up with a draft Bill for self-regulation within six months, failing which the government will subject them to statutory regulation. "There is a lot of irresponsible reporting in Zambia, and therefore a need to change the scenario. The ball is in your court (the media). As soon as possible give us a draft of your blueprint on self-regulation. Otherwise, know that we have a draft legislation which we can present to Parliament anytime," says Kunda, who is also the minister of justice.
But media bodies immediately rejected the six-month ultimatum, saying they believed the country had enough laws already that inhibited their operations. ZAMWA member Sally Chawama said on behalf of other media organisations that they would not accept the arrangement of coming up with a statutory regulatory body.
"There are many laws that govern the media, including ones on defamation, sedition and prohibition of false publication. We don’t have intentions to accommodate statutory regulation, whether it comes today or in the next 100 years, because we feel there are adequate laws in Zambia inhibiting the operations of the media," Chawama says.
Chapadongo Lungu, the ZUJ general secretary, said the media in the country were already regulating themselves well, saying statutory regulation would be subjecting themselves to political manipulation.
"The only thing that the media haven’t done is dance to the tune of politicians, and they’ve used that as an excuse to demand statutory regulation," he said.
Last week MISA-Zambia, PAZA, ZAMWA, PANOS Southern Africa, Press Freedom Committee of the Post, the Catholic Media Services and the Zambia Union of Broadcasters, announced that they had come up with a framework that will be used to create a self-regulatory body to promote accountability, peer review and the professionalism of media institutions.
Henry Kabwe, speaking on behalf of the other media bodies, said they had created the Media Liaison Committee (MLC), which will ensure journalists, media houses and the general public were protected in the dissemination of information and self-expression. "As the MLC, we have consulted locally and some committee members will be leaving for Kenya and South Africa to study how self-regulatory frameworks are being run in those countries," Kabwe said.
But as to whether this step by media bodies will be enough to appease the government and other political elements who want statutory regulation of the media houses is yet to be seen.
This story includes downloadable print-quality images -- Copyright IPS, to be used exclusively with this story.
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