SAR, Vol 11, No 3, April 1996
ZAMBIA AND THE MEDIA: A LETTER
BY METHAETSILE LEEPILE
Private Bag 13386, Windhoek, Namibia
Dr. Kaire Mbuende
Southern Africa Development Community (SADC)
February 7, 1996
Dear Dr. Mbuende,
For three years now, MISA has been highlighting the deteriorating media freedom situation in Zambia. Sadly the abuse of media freedom by Zambia's supposedly-democratic government has now plummeted to new depths with the banning of the Monday February 5 edition of the privately-owned daily newspaper The Post, and the detention of three of the paper's editors.
The Post's Editor-in-Chief Fred M'membe, Managing Editor Bright Mwape and Editor Matsautso Phiri were detained on February 5 after armed police spent several hours searching their homes and The Post's premises in Lusaka. M'membe, Mwape and Phiri appeared in court on Tuesday February 6 and were charged with contravening the Official Secrets Act, and with being in possession of a prohibited publication - namely the February 5 edition of their own newspaper, which President Frederick Chiluba banned in terms of Section 53 of the Penal Code the day it was published.
In its February 5 edition, The Post reported that the Government planned to hold a referendum on a new constitution. It appears the charge of contravening the Official Secrets Act relates to this story, while under the second charge, the three editors are accused of being in possession of the banned edition of their paper. During their raid of The Post's premises on February 5, police reportedly censored articles which were to be published in the following day's edition of The Post, production of which was delayed by the search. The police continued their search throughout February 6. When M'membe, Mwape and Phiri appeared in court on February 6, they were denied bail, and as I write, their lawyers are making further applications to the courts for the three to be released on bail - hearings which have gone on almost the entire day.
This latest clamp-down on The Post is perhaps the most severe in the past three years, during which time the Zambian authorities have become increasingly hostile towards the private media in general, and The Post in particular. The Government has resorted more and more to using arcane legislation inherited from the previous one-party regime of Dr. Kenneth Kaunda, much of which dates back to British colonial rule. Such legislation violates international human rights standards and treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Zambia has acceded, and the African Charter on Human and People's Rights, which has been ratified by Zambia. The actions of the Zambian Government also clearly conflicts with the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic African Press, which Information Ministers from SADC member states - Zambia included - have adopted.
On coming to power, the government of President Chiluba promised to scrap such legislation. With this pledge in mind, the independent Media Reform Committee in September 1993 submitted to the Government recommendations for the reform of legislation affecting the media. Yet the Government has chosen to ignore these recommendations, preferring instead increasingly to apply these out-dated and undemocratic laws in a bid to silence its critics and opponents.
As the 1991 Windhoek Declaration on Promoting an Independent and Pluralistic Press points out, media freedom and diversity are prerequisites for social and economic development, as well as for the advancement of democracy. By adopting the Windhoek Declaration, SADC Information Ministers have shown their commitment to promoting media freedom and diversity in the region. The actions of the Zambian government are increasingly undermining that commitment - and thus the development process. Therefore we urge SADC member states, through your good offices, to bring pressure to bear on the Zambian Government to stop its persecution of the media, and to setting in motion - as a matter of utmost urgency - an overhaul of the statute books with a view to bringing legislation in line with accepted international norms for media freedom, freedom of expression and other fundamental human rights.
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