By Lwanga Mwilu
It is Independence Day and in joining the millions of other citizens who are commemorating this important milestone of 51 years of an independent Zambia, I wish to share my thoughts on one of our freedoms and hopefully inspire a public interrogation of the extent to which we are enjoying it.
Freedom of expression is one of our core indicators of democracy and a freedom that is crucial to the protection and enjoyment of all other freedoms. I wish to reflect on this freedom, particularly in light of what appears to be an uncomfortable relationship between information minister, honourable Chishimba Kambwili and Radio Phoenix, as well as Phoenix’s dismissal of Christine Ngwisha.
Last Tuesday, honourable Kambwili was a guest on Let the people talk and everyone who listened to the programme can confirm that the minister was not happy with his interviewer, Christine. He openly expressed his frustration with her and the way she was conducting the interview and later went on to accuse her/Radio Phoenix of planting opposition UPND cadres to gang up on him during the phone-in segment of the show. Come Friday, Christine got fired and what has followed is the inevitable speculation of whether or not her dismissal is linked to the minister’s interview.
This week, the minister is back on Radio Phoenix’s case, accusing them of being anti-government and pro-UPND and threatening to revoke their operating licence. Now this would probably be just another story elsewhere, but in a country that identifies itself as a democracy, seeing the government openly take such a position is very worrying.
Let me go back to the minister’s appearance on Let the people talk and particularly the point where Christine read some emails sent in by listeners and honourable Kambwili accused her/ Radio Phoenix of planting UPND cadres to send those emails. He also expressed his suspicion at the station’s faulty phones and offered his mobile phone to be used instead. The phone problem was eventually fixed but the minister still felt there was some kind of conspiracy on who could actually get through.
While I cannot argue with honourable Kambwili’s suspicion that there was a conspiracy to have UPND cadres air their views because I imagine he has some basis for that, I found nothing unusual about the views in the emails he got that day. They were just like the comments we often see on social media and I felt, instead of protesting that much, the minister should have simply welcomed those views and challenged them with his own so that at the end of the day, we (the listening public) would decide which messages worked for us. This should be the way a public sphere operates in a democracy: divergent views allowed equal space to be articulated, contested and defended. Divergent views from PF, UPND, FDD, and so on, fairly competing for credibility, legitimacy and the support of the electorate.
Given this expectation, I feel the minister’s emphatic “Us vs Them” attitude is a missed opportunity by the government to show its commitment to a diverse public sphere and an independent media that is free to be a platform for the different voices in our society. In the same way I felt, as the government spokesperson, he could have simply accommodated those emails and calls without making it seem like being UPND invalidated one’s views on matters of public interest. Besides, whether those sentiments were expressed on that programme or not would not have changed the fact that they do exist. Would the minister have preferred to only receive solidarity feedback and remain unaware of the dissenting views held by some people? Is it not better to be made aware of dissent at a time when you still have an opportunity to plan an intervention rather than say people expressing their dissent on the ballot?
I feel that the minister does not appreciate enough the fact that unanimity on every issue is neither possible nor necessary in a democracy. I also feel it is not correct to reduce dissent to political party affiliation as if that is the only possible reason. What about one’s social context?
I know for example that I agree with the government on some issues and disagree on others, same situation with different opposition parties and that is simply due to my own reality informed by my background, my being a journalist, my being a woman and a youth (these two worlds, as you may appreciate, often place me at some very taxing frontiers) and other factors that have absolutely nothing to do with political affiliation. This, I believe, is the experience of a lot of people: to take a message and bring our own interpretations to it based on our own agency, capacity for analysis and of course lived reality. It is not always about party affiliation. And even if one day I chose to be affiliated to a party, I would want to be more useful than that member who simply agrees and praises…is it not better to be built by criticism than ruined by praise?
At 51, the measure of patriotism in Zambia should not be based on whether one agrees or disagrees with the government position on things. Opposing views are also a form of patriotism because they provide opportunities for the status quo to be challenged and even transformed for the better. I think if the space for inclusive deliberation on matters of public interest is allowed to shrink and either exclude or underrepresent contesting discourses, the government will end up in an echo chamber where the only voice they hear is their own and the inevitable disconnect from the electorate’s reality that will follow from such a situation will help no one.
I think the minister may want to step back a bit and assess his views on Radio Phoenix and even The Post. When the PF were in opposition, these were some of the media institutions that risked their necks and gave president Michael Sata a platform to reach the masses. I remember doing a thorough analysis of the media coverage in the run-up to 2011 elections and how ZNBC, Daily Mail and Times of Zambia were outdoing each other in praising MMD and simultaneously demonising PF. If Sata made it in any headlines, it was a story linking him to homosexuality, violence and whatever these media knew would put off the public. These media did not live up to their public media mandate and our information needs and rights as citizens were not met because we never got a balanced representation of events. Given the PF’s background and how their rise to power was in part aided by media that dared to do more than just parrot the government of the day’s songs, we expect better than a constrained public media and a threatened private media.
The dismissal of Christine after over 10 years at Phoenix is a very uncomfortable moment for the media in general. The minister’s warning to Phoenix staff is even more uncomfortable because he is a very powerful man in this country and so how can the media speak truth to power if they have to simultaneously negotiate their way around their seemingly threatened jobs? How much can one do if their job seems to be held by a spider’s web? I look forward to the outcome of the investigation into Christine’s dismissal, which the minister said is being conducted by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. And I also challenge Radio Phoenix to put us all at ease by proving that Christine’s dismissal was not an act of intimidation and victimisation for simply doing her job. We cannot have such precedents in a country that is fighting for media freedom, especially not in private media where typically, journalists are expected to enjoy more latitude and freedom to do their work.
Let me end by saying that dissent is not inherently an enemy of the government and should not be seen as such. It is as good as a messenger that alerts them to a dissatisfied reality that then becomes possible for them to tackle. In dealing with public views, I think it is important to recognise one’s privilege in any given situation and how that positioning potentially blinds one to the reality of those on the other side of that privilege. It is equally important not to dismiss someone’s experience just because we do not share that experience. As we say in Bemba, icikalipa cumfwa umwine: the one who feels it knows it best; and just because it is not your struggle does not mean it is not a struggle. It is important to locate dissent within such contexts and analyse it from there.
From one patriotic Zambian to another, I wish to encourage honourable Kambwili and through him, the government, to help grow a healthy public sphere where divergent views, no matter how uncomfortable, are allowed expression. We need to entrench, not stifle, participatory democracy in all its forms. This is the Zambia we desire and deserve.
Our independence came at great cost and sacrifice and it is therefore our responsibility as patriotic citizens to keep safeguarding our various freedoms. Happy 51st independence anniversary to the leadership and people of this beautiful country I am privileged to call home!
Note: Originally published in The Post of October 24, 2015.