In an archetypal showing of growing government animosity toward online media in Africa, the Zambian government has unleashed the police on editors and journalists of online media organisations accused irresponsible reporting.
Editors and journalists have gone into hiding and are publishing undercover, for fear of being arrested. Meanwhile, the Zambian government has said it is working with the Zambia information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country’s telecom sector regulator, to come up with a law to regulate social and online media in the country.
The Web is becoming a conduit for expression of social unrest on the continent. The result is that some African governments are feeling increasingly uncomfortable about online media.
In several African countries, social and online media have been used to coordinate demonstrations, some of which have resulted in the overthrow of presidents. Perhaps the most prominent example was in northern Africa, where social networks aided the organisation of demonstrations that led to the demise of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
After months of threats by the Zambian government to close online media organisations accused of providing a platform for opposition political party leaders, the Zambia police have launched a hunt for online media editors, journalists and any citizen who has posted negative comments about the government online.
Police spokesperson Charity Katanga said the police will use local, regional and international law to pursue authors and publishers of what they have called criminal, libelous, defamatory, treasonous and seditious statements in online media. Local access to some online media has already been blocked by the Zambian government.
“Some unscrupulous people have taken advantage of the cyberspace to commit crimes on the Internet through defamatory comments and remarks posted on websites especially through the electronic media in the name of press freedom, which end up infringing a number of state security provisions,” Katanga said in a statement Thursday.
So far, Katanga said investigations into the identities of the perpetrators of such crimes are under way and that the police will arrest and expose people hiding behind the anonymity of the Internet.
The minister of Transport, Works and Communications, Yamfwa Mukanga, on Tuesday announced plans by the Zambian government to introduce a law to regulate online media and close online media organisations.
Mukanga said the Zambian government is currently working with ZICTA to introduce the law, designed to regulate online media in order to make journalists accountable for what they publish.
“We have to find a way of controlling them because they are tarnishing the image of our country. Of late, we have seen a lot of things published by online media that are every negative because they publish anything,” Mukanga said.
In addition, the Zambian government has been arresting and detaining journalists working in online media.
Last week, Zambia’s deputy minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry, Miles Sampa, offered a reward of up US$2,000 to anyone with information that will lead to the arrest of journalists working for online media. The minister of Information and Broadcasting Service, Mwansa Kapeya, then called a press briefing at which he denounced online media organisations and called for responsible journalism.
While the Zambian government controls the country’s mainstream media, online media has emerged as the only option for alternative news.