Journalists demand legal protections
INFORMATION IS THE BASIS of a healthy democracy, yet Zambia has failed to establish adequate constitutional support for journalists attempting to extract information from the government, according to Elizabeth Mweene-Chanda, lecturer in the Dept of Mass Communication at the University of Zambia.
“Today there are no constitutional guarantees to access to information in Zambia despite that a new Freedom of Information Bill has been 'under consultation' since 2002,” said Mweene-Chanda, who has also worked as a journalist at Sun newspapers.
“The result is that the government has continued to control operations of the media. Various community media have been closed or threatened with closure for airing programmes considered to be against government over the years.”
Ms. Mweene-Chanda (pictured at right) spoke to a group of 20 journalists from mainstream media in Lusaka, Zambia, in early July. The one-day conference, sponsored by The Media Project, was the first of its kind in Zambia and comes as that nation prepares for nationwide elections later this year, though no election date has yet been set.
Other participants in the day-long dialog agreed with Mweene-Chanda on the obstacles to improving the quality of information.
“The challenges are access to information, which we are denied. We need serious media law reforms for Zambian media to operate in a conducive environment,” said Arnold Tutu, Assistant News Editor for Radio Phoenix, following the conference.
“The preamble of the Zambian constitution declares that Zambia will uphold the values of democracy, transparency, accountability and good governance. These ideals are only possible where the media adequately perform their role as a watchdog of society,” said Ms. Mweene-Chanda.
In theory, Article 20 provides that "No person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his freedom of expression that is to say freedom to impart and communicate ideas and information without interference whether communication be to the public generally or to any person or class of persons and freedom from interference with his correspondence".
The Zambian President, however, is given absolute discretion under Article 25 to ban publications deemed contrary to public interest. Ms. Chanda was quick to point out how ominous this arrangement is.
“The use of the term 'absolute discretion' leaves the president with so much (power) to determine whether a particular publication should be banned", she argued. "A discretionary power entitles that a decision will be based on an individual's personal judgement, and publications can be banned for personal gain."
In Mweene-Chanda's view, giving the president unrestricted power to determine what is in the public interest is an open invitation to abuse of this power for personal benefit or to exact revenge.