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Media reform stagnates in Zambia

On September 27, the High Court in Zambia's capital, Lusaka, granted acting President Rupiah Banda an injunction restraining The Post newspaper from publishing libelous words against him. Zambia's Sunday Times reported that the court had also given a penal notice to Editor-in-Chief Fred M'membe to comply with the order. M'membe refused and appealed to the court to dismiss the charges against him, but the High Court threw out the application.

Despite promises made in early 2002 by the Ministry of Information and media stakeholders to review media laws that indirectly hinder press freedom, there has been no change in Zambian defamation legislation. Fred M'membe and The Post are in the news for the umpteenth time for the same offense. 

A number of defamation offenses remain on the books even after the years of a seesawing government undertaking to liberalize the media sector--a far-reaching initiative that saw the conception of the Independent Broadcasting Authority and a start to the transformation of the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) into a public service broadcaster. The authority would act as an independent mediator for broadcast media and wrest some of the powers away from the Information Ministry.

With 2008 almost at an end, the authority has yet to see the light of day. The latest hurdle to press freedom now is the government's attitude toward proposals endorsed by the media stakeholders. Zambian media associations have pushed for the Independent Broadcasting Authority, and while the government had once shown its support, it has stalled in it implementation.

The obvious consequence is that it is still the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that decides in place of the proposed authority, as was the case recently, when it ordered radio stations to stop phone-in programs for political reasons.

Amid this dilly-dallying, the sincerity of the various governments that have been in office since the process began is questionable. Back in 2003, I led a delegation of Angolan parliamentarians and jurists involved in media law reform in Angola on a tour of Zambian media institutions--supposedly to learn from the Zambian example. The trip included visits to the then-Minister of Information and Broadcasting, ZNBC, and The Post, where we were received by Fred M'membe.

As far as the lesson is concerned, the trip was worth it. However, what we learned was not necessarily what the Zambians had originally set out to teach us: It seems that a country that used to be an exemplary model for other African countries in terms of press freedom has faltered due to political expediency.

Contempt of court proceedings against M'membe began on October 9. 

(Reporting from Johannesburg.)

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