BY GOLDEN MAUNGANIDZE
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) is greatly encouraged by the explicit provisions in Zambia’s constitution which guarantee freedom of expression and the right to privacy.
We believe that these constitutional provisions offer immense opportunities for the entrenchment of democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental rights in the country.
Hence, ahead of, during and after the elections, on the 12th of August 2021, Misa is particularly concerned about the safety and security of journalists and the media in Zambia; the enactment of claw-back laws such as the recently enacted Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act No.2 of 2021 and the need for citizens to access to information at all times both online and offline.
The throttling and subsequent internet disruptions in Zambia on the day of elections to date are deplorable, given that elections are at the core of the exercise of democracy and respect of citizens’ rights.
Access to the internet and social media platforms is very critical during an election as it facilitates transparency around the processes and fosters active citizen participation.
Suffice to note that internet access equates to access to information and to the realisation of the right to freedom of expression.
All this is of concern to us because the necessary media legislative reforms required to align the existing constitution have not yet been effected.
Misa has previously stated the urgency of these reforms, noting that they are of significant importance ahead of the poll.
The failure to critically address and reform existing laws such as the Public Order Act (1955); Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) Act, the Penal Code Act (1938) and the recently promulgated Cyber Security and Cyber Crimes Act among others is an unfortunate drawback that might have serious repercussions on how the forthcoming elections are conducted.
Misa holds that Zambia has missed an opportunity to ensure these laws conform with its constitution and also, other regional and international instruments that the country is a signatory to.
These instruments include the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, Banjul Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression in Africa, Southern Africa Protocol on Sport, Culture and Information and the African Charter on Broadcasting.
Further, Misa is concerned with the failure of the government of Zambia to move with speed towards the enactment of the Access to Information (ATI) Bill.
The ATI law is critical especially on critical issues of national importance such as elections as it provides for transparency and accountability, contrary to the prevailing environment of secrecy, which breeds corruption and other vices.
We are concerned that in the absence of the said reforms, the Sadc Guidelines and Principles on the Conduct of Democratic Elections will not be fully adhered to ahead of, during and immediately after the August 12 poll.
As a result, Zambians will not fully enjoy increased media freedom, their right to freedom of expression, assembly, association, and access to information.
Misa is also alarmed by the cases of media freedom violations in Zambia since the beginning of the year. In the first half of the year alone, Misa Zambia recorded cases of politically motivated attacks of media houses by supporters and officials of the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF).
The attacks included the ransacking and damage of property at the Liberty Radio in an attempt to block the opposition Democratic Party president, Harry Kalaba, from appearing on a paid-for programme.
This was followed by yet another attack, by the PF officials, who violently disrupted a radio programme on Radio Luswepo featuring, yet again, the DP president, Kalaba.
Both attacks happened in the month of February 2021. In March 2021, the PF officials and supporters teargassed Radio Chet, for featuring United Party for National Development (UNDP) provincial chairperson, Mathews Chilekwa.
On June 24, Radio Kalungwishi in Chiengi District was set ablaze, but not a single person was held accountable for such attacks on the media.
We reiterate that both officials and supporters of political parties should be educated that actions that undermine media freedom constitute a serious violation of journalists’ constitutional right to media freedom and citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information.
We further urge political leaders to guard against making inflammatory statements that incite and excite their supporters to take the law into their own hands thus tarnishing the images of their respective parties, and ultimately, that of Zambia.
To this end, the statement by President Edgar Lungu that journalists should be protected and be safe at all times when executing their duties is highly commendable and hope that tangible safety nets will be put in place by his administration.
The president made these remarks during this year’s World Press Freedom Day commemorations.
Misa also calls upon media houses to acquaint journalists covering elections with the profession’s safety and security measures to reduce the significance of threats or attacks against journalists and media workers.
In the same breath, we encourage all journalists to strictly adhere to their codes of ethics and to observe the highest standards in reporting the elections by showing a commitment to professionalism, media credibility and integrity.
Misa thus calls for the following minimum conditions during and post the August 12 elections in Zambia:
· The African Union and Southern African Development Community (Sadc), should insist that the government of Zambia guarantees that journalists and media houses covering the election story are allowed to conduct their lawful professional duties without hindrance as it is their constitutionally guaranteed right to media freedom.
· The government should order the police to firmly deal with these wanton acts of lawlessness which pose a great risk to the lives of journalists, media workers as well as their families.
· Leaders of political parties should educate their supporters that their actions constitute serious violations of journalists’ constitutional right to media freedom and citizens’ right to freedom of expression and access to information.
· Political leaders should guard against making inflammatory statements that incite and excite their supporters to take the law into their own hands (against journalists and media workers), thus tarnishing the images of their respective parties and that of Zambia
· Sadc should insist that the Electoral Commission of Zambia enforces the Sadc Principles on the Conduct of Democratic Elections where it pertains to political parties and citizens’ equal and equitable access to the state media, notably the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation.
· The government of Zambia should extensively review and/or repeal the laws that hinder the enjoyment of freedom of expression, assembly and choice that is guaranteed by the country’s constitution.
· The Zambian government should see to it that the internet is available, affordable and accessible at all times before, during and after elections in line with the provisions of the revised ACHPR Declaration of Principles of Freedom of Expression and Access to Information
Misa wishes the peoples of Zambia well as they decide their future and that the right to expression is defended at all times even post the release of the results of the plebiscite.
Golden Maunganidze is the Misa Regional Governing Council chairperson
The Misa Regional Observer Mission was led by the RGC chairperson Golden Maugnanidze accompanied by fellow RGC members namely: Salome Kitomari, the RGC treasurer and chairperson of Misa Tanzania; Goncalves Fernando, chairperson MisaMozambique and Mandy Pondani, NGC member for Misa Malawi. Regional secretariat members, Tabani Moyo, acting regional director & Misa Zimbabwe director and Nqaba Matshazi our fundraising and regional campaigns coordinator provided technical support to the team.