While Zambia has been promised an improvement in freedom of expression and media freedom, neighbouring Mozambique seems to be going in the opposite direction, reversing gains of the past 30 years.

Zambia’s newly elected president, Hakainde Hichilema, has hinted improving freedom of expression and media environment in the country, after years of decline under former President Edgar Lungu.

The Mozambican government is reported to be mooting new legislation which critics say will reverse the media freedoms gained in the last 30 years since the passing of the Press Law, which eased the environment for media freedom and overall freedom of expression.

In an address shortly after he won the presidency of the country in last month’s election, Hichilema said administration would not shut down nor monitor the media.

“The UPND (United People for National Development) government is not there to shut down Prime Television … (Prime TV), sorry about what happened to you,” he said in a television address to the nation.

“(Shutting down media houses) will not happen under our administration, you will operate as a business, you know your obligations as a business. But no political hand will be there to shut down your business.”

He was referring to last year’s incident in which Zambia’s broadcasting regulator, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, cancelled Prime TV’s license supposedly “in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order”.

The shutting down of Prime TV was not the first incident under Lungu’s administration as in 2016, the government forced the closing down of The Post newspaper on allegations it had a huge unpaid tax bill. Critics, however, argued that the closure was to do with the publication’s critical reporting about the government.

Hichilema followed his TV address by taking to social media to announce that his government would not pay lip service to press freedom and was “taking practical steps to actualising it”.

The Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) welcomed Hichilema’s position on freedom of expression and media freedom in Zambia, saying “media freedom and the right to free expression, which is critical to socio-economic development, had been on the decline in Zambia, and there is, therefore, urgent need to address this”.

It urged Hichilema to follow through on this pledge and improve Zambia’s media freedom environment.

It called on the newly elected president to prioritise the enactment of the Access to Information (ATI) Bill into law. “The ATI law is critical especially on critical issues of national importance are engaged in a transparent and accountable manner,” said Misa. According to Misa the Bill has been on the agenda for the past two decades.

The sub-continental media organisation expressed hopes that the country’s Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) would be transformed into a “truly independent” public broadcaster in line with the African Charter on Broadcasting, as opposed to being the mouthpiece of the ruling party that it had become. ZNBC was criticised for having locked out opposition parties during the last election while providing airtime to the former president’s Patriotic Front party.

“In breaking with the past, there is also a need to reform government-owned publications such as the Daily Mail, to ensure they are representative of the diverse views and opinions of all Zambians to enable the citizens of that country to make informed decisions and choices on issues that concern their daily lives,” urged Misa.

Threat to media freedom looming in Mozambique

Meanwhile, the media freedom environment in neighbouring Mozambique is reported to be under threat as the government has been accused of taking steps to reverse the gains made since 1991 when the country’s first post-independence Press Law was passed. The Press Law is said to have opened up the space for media freedom and overall freedom of expression in the country.

However, the government is reported to want to amend the Press Law, leading Misa in Mozambique to warn that government’s efforts to replace the 1991 legislation “may represent dangers to the enjoyment of basic rights already established”. It urged society to oppose the government move.

Misa said the approval of the Press Law, 30 years ago, “allowed the emergence of pluralism and diversity, with the birth of private sector media, complementing the public sector. Community media outlets have also emerged and are now playing an extremely important role in the provision of useful public information and in the interaction between the public and the centres of power.

“The 30th anniversary (this year) of the Press Law occurs at a special moment, and in a context where this legal framework is under revision, in a process that raises a number of concerns about its future. The process of revision of the Press Law began in November 2006, and aimed, basically, to bring it into harmony with the relevant provisions of the Constitution of the Republic, approved in 2004”.

While Misa accepted that the review might be necessary due to the need to adapt it to the new challenges of the media sector, particularly in view of the new technological platforms, including digital information, the organisation feared that the envisaged changes to the Press Law might lead to the imposition of limitations on the practice of the profession of journalism.

The organisation identified eight issues, which it said were critical to the amendment process:

  1. The lack of independence of a Media Regulatory Authority proposed in the changes.
  2. The apparent marginalisation of the Media Supreme Council, contrary to the provisions of the Constitution of the Republic of Mozambique that deal with these matters.
  3. The maintenance of the limitation of foreign investment to 20%, at a time when the country seeks to open itself to the rest of the world, and where other strategic sectors of the national economy are open to foreign investment in a much greater proportion than this.
  4. The attempt by the government to control the functioning mechanisms of self-regulation of the journalism profession.
  5. The maintenance of the criminalisation of press offences, at a time when it is recommended that this matter be dealt with at the level of the Civil Code.
  6. The absence of penalty provisions for crimes against press freedom, which tend to grow and assume increasingly serious proportions every year.
  7. The criminalisation of journalists for dealing with matters considered to be State Secrets; and
  8. The unnecessary limitation on the number of foreign media correspondents.

Misa urged the Mozambican society to maintain its interest on the issue of the amendments of the Press Law “so that any new law continues to offer strong guarantees regarding the contribution of freedom of expression to the consolidation of the democratic process underway in Mozambique”.