Rejection of bills a blow to media freedom, activists

The Zambian government has thwarted attempts by the Zambia Independent Media Association (ZIMA) and six opposition members to table three bills to ensure greater freedom of the press, deciding to introduce its own media freedom bills instead.

The campaign had hoped to introduce three bills - the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), Independent Broadcasting Act (IBA) and the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation Act (ZNBCA) to address difficulties faced by the media in Zambia, where media freedom is not enshrined in the constitution.

The speaker of parliament, Amussa Mwanamwambwa said on Tuesday that the bills could not be allowed to go through because they would require the government to spend money on creating the new institutions proposed in them and approval was first needed for this from the finance ministry.

"I therefore will not allow the bills to be tabled in their form [without government consent]. The law is clear on such matters," Mwanamwambwa said.

However, the government, through the ministry of legal affairs and the ministry of information and broadcasting, had decided to table its own similar bills, which incorporate some of the elements contained in the ZIMA-driven bills.

With the FOIA bill, ZIMA and opposition lawmakers wanted the government to lift the veil of secrecy on the army, air force and police on the grounds that they were funded by taxpayers and therefore taxpayers had a right to information on them.

Attorney-General George Kunda, who will present the government's version of the bills, disagreed and said information pertaining to security organs was "top secret" and should remain so.

Under the IBA bill, the government would have had to relinquish its authority to appoint heads of state media in favour of a parliamentary committee. The government has rejected this too, insisting that this was the prerogative of the executive and that parliament could merely ratify the appointments.

Under the ZNBCA bill, broadcast licensing powers would have been handled by an independent authority but the government rejected this too, saying the independent body would have to be funded by the state treasury.

Although the government's version of the IBA and FOIA are similar to the ZIMA and opposition version, there was concern over the government's version of the broadcast bill.

It gave the government powers to take over a public broadcaster in what it perceived to be a State of Emergency and required Zambian viewers and listeners to pay licence fees.

A statement by ZIMA and three other major media institutions - the Society for Senior Journalists, Zambia Media Association and the Press Association of Zambia - indicated that they had not yet given up hope.

"We acknowledge the fact that government included most of our proposals in the two pieces of legislation (FOIA and IBA)," the statement said. "We, however, regret the fact that government is not interested in transforming ZNBCA from a state-run and controlled broadcaster, to a public and professionally run broadcaster."