Brandishing placards asking passing traffic to honk in the name of free press, Zambian bloggers will today take to the streets of Lusaka for the second time in a fortnight to protest against the government’s stifling of freedom of expression on the Internet.
Zambia’s reputation as one of the more liberal and democratic countries in Southern Africa falls short when it comes to journalistic freedoms. Accustomed to having a strong hold over content in traditional media through state ownership of two daily papers and the public broadcaster, the government now appears to be taking a similar approach to online content.
I’ve spoken to numerous journalists during my travels in Zambia, and they all voice concerns that the government abuses its power and uses harassment to try to ensure the press tows the party line. “Media bodies are scared of the government laws which date back to pre-colonial times,” says blogger Nancy Handabile.
Earlier this month, three journalists were arrested in suspected connection with the critical blog Zambian Watchdog , which is believed to be run from outside of the country. The site, along with a second independent site, Zambia Reports, has also been blocked from access within the country.
It is over such monitoring of online content that the group of Zambian bloggers known collectively as the Zambian Bloggers Network have taken to the streets in protest. “Three quarters of media people work for state-owned or state-affiliated outlets,” says Handabile, who is part of the network and the protests.“ So we need to engage the public directly [through the protests],” she says.
According the bloggers, the government is now responding to the fact that a public hungry for uncensored news is turning to online reporting for better, unbiased coverage. “For us it’s about social media, bloggers. People are being arrested for being in connection to Zambian Watchdog. People on Facebook and Twitter are scared of being arrested,” says Brenda Zulu, one of the bloggers behind the Network. “You can’t express yourself freely in cyberspace.”
It is also suspected that Facbook is being monitored, with reports that the government is working with Chinese experts to install a secret internet monitoring system.
Aside from direct government control over access to content, journalists themselves are “self-censoring,” says Zulu. “Even people who work in mainstream media censor themselves because they are scared of this invisible force,” she says.
Yesterday, the editorial board of Zambia Reports wrote an open letter to the Zambian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services questioning the blocking of websites and the relationship between the government and Chinese experts.
“The use of Chinese technology to engage in net censorship is not only unlawful under the Zambian constitution, it also deprives the Zambian people of their basic right to access diverse sources of media outside the state-controlled outlets,” the letter reads. “Furthermore, this censorship is damaging to Zambia’s international image as a destination for foreign investment and aid.”
I have been travelling in Zambia covering global health issues as an International Reporting Project new media fellow.