4 July 2014

Zambia: In Defence of Zambian Watchdog


In recent days there has been significant discussion about a series of aggressive attack articles against the news website Zambian Watchdog (ZWD) circulated on social media by a woman named Proud Aushi Musamba Mumba, as well as responses to these attacks by the management of (ZWD).

While it unfortunate that this dispute has involved personal attacks on character from both sides, we hope that the media community of Zambia and the Southern Africa region will come forward to stand in defence of Zambian Watchdog and their right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

It is the classic maxim of journalism that underlies a duty to "comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable." In terms of the good work of Zambian Watchdog has done in recent years, it is a measure of success that so many have been made uncomfortable as to respond in such a negative manner.

One is of course free to passionately disagree with the views and opinions expressed by these journalists - indeed there have been a number of articles that we disagree with. But no matter what one's political orientation may be, freedom of expression must reign supreme, and freedom of the press must be protected in order to ensure that the public has access to diverse sources of information regarding the public affairs of the nation.

By publishing personal details of journalists, including home addresses and financial details, the author of the attack piece appears to be indirectly inviting attacks and harassment by the PF's famously violent cadres. It is a very sad state of affairs, especially considering the repressive environment against independent media in Zambia, to see this kind of malicious attack article making it even more difficult for journalists, whistleblowers, and civil society to fulfill an existence independent from the state.

Online media in Zambia has become a subject of controversy for a very simple reason - it is often the only place to find information outside the ruling party's propaganda stream. Consider the environment: there is the state-owned broadcaster ZNBC offering only positive news about the government. There are the two state-owned newspapers, Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia (the latter of which has become terribly mismanaged), and then the Post, which is its own story of moral corruption.

There is without doubt a climate of fear for free media in Zambia. Correspondents are forced to hide for fear of losing their jobs or being threatened with violent attacks. Look no further than the frivolous defamation lawsuits being brought by President Michael Sata himself against the Daily Nation. Look at all the journalists who have been arrested and sometimes jailed on totally absurd charges (possessing obscene materials, livestock medication, overdue library book). Look at the draconian implementation of online censorship by blocking of websites and the constant threats and harassment of local radio stations.

It is a confirmed fact: the current Zambian government is a serial violator of freedom of expression. Under the current regime, there appears to be a trend underway not only to make independent media illegal, but the very idea of independent thought.

Even if you have been offended by an article or opinion published on Zambian Watchdog, there is without doubt much more good done than harm. The website's reporting has been cited far and wide as one of the very few sources of information during moments of crucial national importance.

Critics of the views expressed in the media should feel free to criticise, argue, debate, and disagree. But when we make the discussion about the journalists instead of the actual political and social issues, everyone loses.

Journalism is a thankless job, and one for which there is great risk and very little reward in today's Zambia. It takes courage to do what Zambian Watchdog does. After this kind of attack, it will take even more courage, but we stand behind them in their mission to deliver alternative information to the Zambian people.

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