— Practicing journalism has become one of the more dangerous things to do in Africa’s largest copper producer, Zambia. The country -- once seen as a model of democracy in southern Africa -- has seen a sharp rise in threats and physical attacks on journalists.
The Patriotic Front was ushered into office in the September 2011 elections on the platforms of enhanced freedom and democracy.
Ask any journalist in Zambia and they will tell you that promise has not been kept and in fact, the opposite is occurring.
Harassment and intimidation of people working in the media -- especially those identified as critical of the ruling party -- is on the upswing.
In less than two weeks, three journalists have been arrested and charged by the Zambian police with various offenses ranging from sedition and defamation to unlawful possession of restricted military material.
Some opposition lawmakers, like Charles Kakoma, are expressing serious concern that these arrests are in violation of the law and basic human rights in the country. "We have seen in the recent past journalists being harassed, being beaten and media organizations being threatened with closure like UNZA Radio. And now they have turned on to the online publications and they have been trying to close down online publications. Fortunately they have failed to do so because some of them are not registered in Zambia and therefore beyond their jurisdiction,” he said.
The plight of two journalists associated with the online publication Zambian Watchdog have come to the attention of the international media. Clayson Hamasaka and Thomas Zyambo had their homes raided earlier this month, were arrested and Zyambo has been charged with sedition and is scheduled to appear in court July 26.
is known for citing unnamed sources in reports about alleged government corruption.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) on July 17th called on the Zambian government to stop its harassment of the Zambian Watchdog and stop blocking domestic access. The CPJ called it “alarming” to see a democratically-elected government trying to silence and intimidate critics.
Kakoma, a journalist himself, said he feels sad about what is happening and notes he thinks there was more media freedom under President Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party 27-year rule.
“Obviously we used to operate under a one-party state of fear. But this time around it has worsened. And I feel very bad that this government is taking us many years backwards. This government is basically shredding democracy and that is unacceptable, Kakoma said. "As a journalist, I feel that that should be fought.”
Opposition lawmaker Gary Nkombo said efforts to counter this media onslaught through legislation have been stymied in the National Assembly.
“It is also clear that they [ruling party] have deliberately delayed the bringing of the Freedom of Information bill to parliament as one of their ways to shut down progress regarding the articles contained therein. I think that today is a very sad day for this country and for many people who have been depending on the online publications, because the online publications have not only been very informative but they have created a platform for people to decipher the difference between the state-sponsored media, which at all stages stifles the flow of information and only support their existence to continue their hegemony and to suppress other ideas,” noted Nkombo.
Zambia's President Michael Sata has been known to sue political opponents and media critics, including the Zambian Watchdog, for defamation and libel. His chief spokesman and head of the Information and Broadcasting Services, Kennedy Sakeni, agreed to be interviewed for this report. But he later cancelled by text message.