Zambia's Sata accused of clamping down on the media

Zambia's media say they are increasingly being target. PHOTO | FILE  

Recent arrests of journalists and blocked access to critical websites in Zambia have sparked concerns of a clampdown on media freedom under President Michael Sata's government.

Prior to the 2011 elections that ushered Sata into power, the then-opposition leader promised to free the media from government interference.

But immediately after taking office, he sacked journalists who had been critical of him as well as the heads of state television and newspapers.

In June the government blocked local access to the Zambian Watchdog, a hard-hitting online newspaper.

This month police detained three journalists with ostensible links to the publication, which does not publish its reporters' names.

Clayson Hamasaka and Thomas Zyambo were held in Lusaka without charge for more than 24 hours after police night-time raids.

Zyambo was eventually arrested and charged with "being in possession of seditious material with intent to publish".

Police had found him with hand-written biographical notes on Sata.

Blocked sites

Five days after Zyambo's release, police arrested and charged investigative journalist Wilson Pondamali with unlawful possession of a restricted military pamphlet.

They later added "theft of a library book" to the charge sheet.

A judge granted the reporter bail last Friday but police refused to release him.

Two days later Pondamali was hospitalised after collapsing in prison.

Local access to Zambian Watchdog has now been blocked again, as well as a mirror website set up by Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders.

Another online publication, Zambia Reports, has also been blocked. It reported this week that authorities are also studying barring the news sites' Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Zambia's President Michael Sata. FILE | AFRICA REVIEW

"Journalists are being arrested and charged with theft of novels, when we all know that they are just being harassed for doing their job — informing the public," exiled journalist Lloyd Himaambo told AFP via email.

"All the gains that have been recorded in the recent past on freedom of the media have been eroded within the past few months," said Himaambo, who fled political harassment during ex-president Rupiah Banda's tenure.

Denied targeting

Ironically, the technology to block the sites apparently has also pulled down the webpages for the president's office and state newspapers the Times of Zambia and the Zambia Daily Mail.

Information Minister Kennedy Sakeni denied the arrests targeted critics, insisting the journalists were investigated for wrongdoing.

"I am sure you read some editorial comments of some newspapers whose journalists are critical of the state. Have such been arrested? The answer is 'no'," he told news agency AFP.

"And so we have been vindicated that those arrested have been found to be criminal elements and the police will do their job accordingly," he said.

He declined to comment on the blocked websites.

Press Association of Zambia (PAZA) president Andrew Sakala blamed the government for trying to snuff out a free press.

"In the last two months, freedom of the media has come under serious threats," he said.

"We have seen journalists been arrested on trumped up charges and the atmosphere that the government has created among media practitioners is that of fear," said Sakala.

A journalist at state-owned Times of Zambia testified to the despair after lay-offs and censorship.

"There is fear in these institutions," he said on condition of anonymity.

"You are not certain if you will have your job tomorrow, it's terrible for us."

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