Zambia moots social media control

Despite the political hullabaloo simmering in Zambia over the continued incarceration of opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema who stands accused of endangering the life of President Lungu by failing to give way to the presidential motorcade, the country is writing its own development story from infrastructure development, liberalisation of airwaves, digitisation and information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

In an exclusive interview with our Senior Writer Lovemore Ranga Mataire (LRM), chief government spokesperson Kampamba Mulenga (KM), who is the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, speaks on various issues playing out in her country, including plans by government to regulate social media.

LRM: Honourable Minister I am honoured to have a conversation with you. Can you give a brief overview of the state of the media in Zambia in regard to press freedom and the manner in which it’s tackling domestic and regional issues?

KM: Thank you very much. For us, the media in Zambia, we have made tremendous headways. I will speak specifically from 2011. We have liberalised the media since the coming in of the Patriotic Front government. I am sure you have seen a lot of print media and more radio stations. We have seen the issued licences to private radio stations and also the print media. From 2011 we had 113 community radio stations and 57 television stations operating across the country and we think that is a milestone. Information is power and that’s why we have all these radio stations. Basically under ZANIS, which is the public informer, there are areas where we are not present where government has to disseminate information. Like recently we had red locusts and armyworm particularly in rural areas. And the government had to partner with community private radio stations in the dissemination of information.

LRM: I am aware that the proliferation of these community radio stations and television is a positive development in entrenching a democratic space. But what is the flipside of such a proliferation and how is government dealing with the possible negative effects of such private media entities?

KM: There is obviously a flipside but I will speak more generally from the time I have been the Minister of Information. Obviously you have distorted information and obviously government cannot interfere with their content. But our stance as government is that we should be more ethical and professional because there is a potential of plunging this country into chaos if we disseminate false information. We recently had an indaba where we invited the media and expressed our concerns as government in regard to how we disseminate information. So we have as a ministry embarked on a national indaba where these issues will be addressed. One of the areas through our ministry that we are trying to embark on this issue so that the media moves on smoothly is we recently had a turnaround strategy through ZAMCOM, which was launched and we are hoping more of our media goes through this traditional body. Of course, the journalism of yesterday is not the same as today, there is a lot of variation, and we hope to bring that glory. You will be interested to know that even with the existence of such radio stations and newspapers, some people have to wait for the national broadcaster to verify the information. We are aware that 53 years after independence, we need to move as a country in terms of the media and our appeal to our colleagues in the media is that we need to take responsibility in the kind of information that we disseminate to the public.

LRM: You have mentioned the fact that journalism of yesterday differs from journalism of today. And one of the aspects in which the two differ is the existence of the social media as an alternative news source. As a government how are you utilising social media as a tool to disseminate information?

KM: First, I am aware that each ministry has a website and if there is any critical information it can be disseminated on the website. But there are two sides to a coin. On the other aspect in regard to social media I think we have not done really well because obviously this is 53 years after independence, some of these technologies are very new to us as a country. We would want to see more pros in social media because it’s the quickest tool of disseminating information. Of course, through social media, we have had cyber crime where some unscrupulous people have been using profiles of some government ministers to swindle people of their hard earned money. And these are some of the challenges we have faced in regard to social media. But not everything on social media is bad; there are other media houses that are disseminating ethical, professional, and truthful and moral information. It is always a challenge, however, to bring to book any culprits on social media because at the moment we lack the mechanism to do so.

LRM: As government, are you mooting any legislation for the regulation of social media given the challenges that the country has so far faced?

KM: Over that one you would have to get in touch with the Zambia Information Technology Authority (ZICTA). It is the regulator of ICT’s in our country and it falls under another ministry, the Ministry of Communication and Transport. But there are definitely contemplating because what we are seeing today on social media is that even from members of the public some of the comments are very insulting. The sad thing is that social media has no age limit and children are busy reading certain profanities which are not desirable for our country.

LRM: When former liberation movements recently met in Angola they resolved to have a strong presence on social media given the fact most young people spend most of their time on social media. What is the Zambian government doing to ensure presence on social media and also to ensure that the platform cannot become a platform for disseminating hate speech or alarmist information?

KM: Our regulations are basically for radio and television, which is under IBA. There we are able to monitor. We recently had a few cases that were brought before the IBA. But then again as minister I always tell members of the public that all these radio stations are owned by Zambians. So as Zambians regardless of our political persuasions, we need to take responsibility to build this country and not destroy it. Democracy comes with responsibility and I think we need to speak more of those responsibilities. People think democracy is doing at will, and I think this is where we are missing it. When you get a licence, are you getting the license to plunge this country into chaos or you want to build up your country? For us it is not just about regulations but about our personal will to move this country forward. Of course, we need checks and balances that are going to move this country forward. What we are not agreeing to is that no government in the world is perfect but you cannot be media houses obsessed with bringing the government down. I think now the new era of media is that if you are private media house you need to understand that you are also a partner in development. The media is important in that it disseminates information and it is that information that is going to build this country as people need to make informed decisions in agriculture and business in general.

LRM: What is the rate of internet penetration in the country? Has there been any study to verify the number of people with access to internet in the country?

KM: We have really penetrated. You also need to factor the issue of mobile network because people now can access the internet on their mobile smart phones. We have also realised that most people are now accessing news from their phones than the hardcopy. So it is advisable for the media house to go online so that readers can access their news. Even those in the traditional media have to up their game.

In terms of statistics I think you need to contact the Zambia Information Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA).   

LRM: What about the issue of digitisation? Does that fall under your ministry?

KM: We are the ones spearheading the digital migration. We have made headways. We have completed the first phase in 2015 and now we are in the second and third phase of digital migration and we are on course and soon we will be switching from analog to digital. We have actually started selling the toolset to members of the public and for one to access the digital signal you need that set. So we have been making tremendous strides where we are selling about a thousand plus sets almost every day and in provinces where these decoders are being sold. This digitisation also brings good news in that we are having creation of provincial studios which will have the state-of-the-art equipment. In line with that we recently had the film policy launched, so we are the major key in terms of the film industry especially with the creation of these provincial studios. By next year June, I am sure the migration will come to a close.

LRM: Is there anything you are doing as a government to ensure availability of content as you migrate from analog to digital?

KM: That is why we approved the film policy. We are trying as much as possible to promote the film policy so that our culture is not lost. We want to grow this industry and will soon beat Nigeria in terms of production of local content. So for us, we are not just looking at the cultural aspect but also job creation and with the coming up of these provincial studios we are going to sell local content production to private stations and we get about 30 percent returns. We will be looking for local content even in some remote areas. This is one of the areas that we are also going to empower the youths especially those who have got talent. We were talking to the Chinese who are willing to fund “Zambia got Talent” as a way to contribute to the production of local content.

LRM: Honourable Minister do you have off-hand figures of how much it will cost to migrate from analog to digital?

KM: The initial phase which we referred to as phase 1 was contracted at a sum of US$9.5 million. This essentially entailed the erection of transmitters at some 10 sites along the railway line near Livingstone. The second and third phase is now more expansive in terms of coverage because it covers the whole country and that’s the phase which was contracted at a sum of US$273 million. We have some 63 transmission sites covering the entire length and breadth of our country.

Six of those are the major transmission sites located at provincial headquarters because only six provincial centres are covered under the contract but in terms of total numbers we have eight transmission sites located at provincial headquarters. This is where provincial headquarters equipped with all the state-of-the art equipment are located. Then there are other smaller studios. In terms of completion time, we have a bit of flexibility. The advantage that we have had is that the contractor had been able to start work even before the money was made available. So by the close of next year June or December we should be done.

LRM: As the voice or mouthpiece of government, are you happy with how Zambia’s image is being projected regionally and internationally? I ask this in the context of the Hichilema issue.

KM: First and foremost as chief government spokesperson, I believe as a country we have done very well. Zambia is a sovereign state and our President believes in the constitution and one of the mandates of the President is to protect the constitution. The current constitution came into effect last year and I think you will be interested to know how we came up with that constitution. We had submission from grassroots, to the provincial level, national level and finally to the Parliament and the opposition party UPND, which Hichilema belongs to. His MPs agreed that this was a people-driven constitution. And the President, because he believes in the people who elected him President, he appended his signature and said let it be. Being an opposition leader does not warrant you to do as you want at will; in whatever country there are regulations, the rule of the law, there is a constitution in place and that’s what governs the country. So if you break any of the laws, it becomes very difficult. Most of the stories that are trending on social media are created by opposition members trying to create a situation where there is tension, where there is police brutality. You have been in this country for some days, have you witnessed any police brutality? Have you seen any soldiers lining the streets? Zambia is a peaceful country. In the last two months, we have had a lot of visits by presidents of other countries and that shows that they have confidence in this country and want to reaffirm our bilateral relations. I think this President has made Zambia the most preferred destination by international delegates, Head of States and tourists.

They have been calls from some sectors of the country that President Lungu releases Mr Hichilema and to me that sends a very wrong message because this country operates on the independence of the three arms of governance – the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. Any attempt to force the President to force the release of Mr Hichilema is a breach of the constitution. He must stand trial first. He may be acquitted or convicted and only then can the President issue a pardon.

LRM: Lastly, minister you understand some of the negative perception of Zambia comes from an episode that saw the South Africa opposition leader Mmusi Maimane being barred from entering Zambia. Can you comment about that incident?

KM: Zambia is a sovereign state and this government is mandated to monitor who comes into the country. So if for any funny reason our government feels that this person should not come in, we are at liberty to bar anyone that we think must not enter the country, it is the will of our nation. My son attending school in America went a day early and was sent back home. It’s their right. Even those who have been turned down will come at the appropriate time.

LRM: Honourable Minister it was a pleasure talking to you.

KM: The pleasure is also mine Lovemore.

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