The December 1990 sacking of editors of Zambia’s two most influential newspapers, the Times and the Daily Mail, are conclusive indications of President Kaunda’s desire to exert greater control of the media.
The departure of Komani Kachinga, of the Times, and Cyrus Sikazwe, of the Mail had been widely anticipated. In the previous three months, the two were caught up in the debate on whether or not to abandon the one-party dictatorship of Kaunda’s ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP). Kaunda was compelled to declare a return to multi-party politics, but the damage, by his reckoning, had been done; Kachinga and Sikazwe, upon whom had relied for pro-UNIP propaganda, would have to go.
Their undoing was to have paid attention to professional ethics, which had remained dormant for many years. By deciding to report the views of the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), Kachinga and Sikazwe displayed rare courage. Kaunda sensed that the two men had taken a stand which could not be altered, even by presidential threats.
The mood within the ruling UNIP is that of anxiety. This year, after 17 years of unchallenged supremacy, UNIP faces its first freely-contested elections since the 1973 Choma Declaration which ushered in one-party rule. The media play a crucial role in any electoral process and this is clear to the UNIP leadership which has exerted heavy pressure on state-owned radio and television. The head of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), a former University of Zambia academic, has been repeatedly linked with the infamous ‘Red Brick House’, a monstrous edifice housing the notorious Special Branch, a highly unpopular wing of the Office of the President (OP).
The OP’s tight surveillance of the media is evident through a range of intimidatory techniques which involve the close monitoring of all the country’s journalists through the interception of mail, indiscriminate bugging of telephones, and interrogation of reporters in the hope they will disclose their news sources.
The Times and Daily Mail as well as ZNBC have resident OP operatives; the eyes and ears of the state. Lately, the OP has adopted a hostile policy as evidenced by my own banning as BBC correspondent from press conferences at State House in Lusaka. Other correspondents have also been banned and accreditation of others may not be renewed.
The assault against journalists has presidential approval; Kaunda himself attacked the church-run fortnightly newspaper, the National Mirror. Angered by the paper's non-conformist pro-democracy editorials, he ordered all government institutions not to advertise in the National Mirror.
No independent newspaper publishers can expect to succeed in the present climate. The prohibitive cost of high capacity printing presses has resulted in total reliance on state-run printing and publishing houses, but the government has recently enforced directives which automatically bar non-government publishers from using government presses.
The latest casualty is a weekly broadsheet, the Sunday Express, which failed to meet its debut deadline after the printers were cautioned against printing it.
The opposition MMD has faced similar difficulties in publishing its monthly newsletter. President Kaunda directed government papers to ignore the MMD despite the fact that state-run papers are public property, having been established or purchased with public taxpayers' money.
The Times of Zambia, for instance, was reported purchased by UNIP from Lonrho partly with social security money from the Zambia National Provident Fund (ZNPF), to which all working Zambians contribute by law.
Despite such obstacles, the MMD is intent on establishing its own publishing house, to bring out a weekly tabloid; otherwise, MMD officials contend, they will enter the electoral campaign at a disadvantage, unable to project its message. Kachinga's dismissal for printing MMD news was accompanied by claims by some UNIP leaders that the local press had been bought by MMD advocates, charges which Kachinga dismissed as 'baseless and unfounded'.
The episode followed a row in which Kachinga, as chairman of the Press Association of Zambia (PAZA), was accused by the government of supporting journalists who had been bribed by the MMD.
The charges, made by UNIP Central Committee member Joseph Simuyandi, followed his October 1990 warning to members of the Kitwe Press Club that biased journalists from the state-owned media would be fired. 'Tell Kachinga,' Simuyandi announced to a stunned Press Club audience, "to clear his desk if he is failing to do his work, before we fire him. He must make a decision himself before we throw him out by the ear... If you are bribed and you are working for the Times or Mail, you must get out before we fire you.'
The threat paved the way for Kachinga's dismissal, and Simuyandi-style intimidatory techniques have been successful elsewhere. The government has also attempted to twist the arm of the press by constitutional means, most notably through the 1980 Press Council Bill. Had it become law, it would have created a UNIP-administered press authority, with wide disciplinary powers over journalists, and an across-the-board licence to hire and fire offending journalists.
PAZA has been ill-served, journalists feel, by its officials, whose parallel roles as government-appointed senior editors have meant they have steered clear of biting the hand which feeds them. Some journalists plan to form a trade union, to negotiate with publishers for better working conditions. PAZA officials say, meanwhile, that the establishment of a union would only divide the media, easing the way for UNIP to continue its domination. •