Perspective: Press Freedom In A Culture Of Oppression And Secrecy

MartinBy Martin Walubita Mubita

The arrest and subsequent release of two scribes reported by most media houses in this week is the product of a protracted battle against a fast-calcifying culture of intimidation, oppression and systematic smothering of private media bodies by the state and its agents. And this in turn has thwarted the public’s right to know.

In releasing the scribes, the state charged them both with seditious practices refuting their initial claim that they were searching for narcotics and seditious materials (whatever that means) at the wee hour of 2:30 in the morning. This volte-face, clearly demonstrates a state that is insincere about press freedom, hellbent on gagging the media and withholding information in the name of state secrets.

What remains to be seen is the determination by the courts of law whether the charge of seditious practices is tenable at law or largely frivolous. Incidentally, Zambia’s constitution clearly provides that “except with his own consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his…freedom to impart and communicate ideas and information without interference”.

The African Union Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression also clearly alludes to this issue, stating that “Attacks such as the murder, kidnapping, intimidation of and threats to media practitioners and others exercising their right to freedom of expression, as well as the material destruction of communications facilities, undermines independent journalism, freedom of expression and the free flow of information to the public” and that “States are under an obligation to take effective measures to prevent such attacks and, when they do occur, to investigate them, to punish perpetrators and to ensure that victims have access to effective remedies.”

It is also worth noting the Zambian government is dragging its feet in incorporating a Freedom of Information Bill to its existing laws. This bill once in place would guarantee unfettered access to information especially to scribes who are institutionally conveyors of information.
Clearly it would bode well for the media fraternity at large that a well-defined, mutually acceptable Freedom of Information Bill is enacted into law soon. In this way, it will be left to scribes to practice self-regulation and institutionally fulfill the best ideals of media practitioners by producing truthful, accurate and balanced reports for the common good. In addition a diverse, free, and independent press is a cornerstone of democracy.

Taken together, these points reveal a state desperately struggling to uphold the standards of fair play, social justice and transparency that our constitution demands.

The state is therefore urged that it faithfully discharge its constitutional duties and not continue to reflect what can only be described as a “disdain for the law.” Such disdain has far-reaching consequences, such disdain is being noticed by patriotic Zambians, such disdain will not go unchallenged forever.

Finally, it is vital to recognise that free speech is crucial in the exercise of the rights enshrined in Zambia’s Constitution. In the concluding chapter of “Paper Wars” historian Verne Harris remarks: “Under an oppressive regime, a free press is one of many strangers. And it remains so. The call of justice is to embrace this stranger and to offer it whatever hospitality we can muster.”