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Radio Licences in Zambia Cancelled Because of Opposition's Access

The truth is out.

Since 1991, when Zambia enjoyed a liberalised business–and by extension, media–environment, consecutive governments have promised the freeing of radio and TV for private stations to compete with state-run Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), which runs both radio and TV channels. But they have dragged their feet in opening up the airwaves apparently for fear of opposition having access to them.

As the ruling government ramps up pressure on online publications by blocking some citizen media websites and arresting independent journalists, more fear factor was unwittingly brought out by President Michael Sata on October 28 when he lambasted Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary Emmanuel Mwamba for issuing national broadcasting licences to two private radio stations and granting operation licences to non-Christian radio stations.

Emmanuel Mwamba, recently dismissed as Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary. Picture used with permission from the Zambian Eye.

Emmanuel Mwamba, recently dismissed as Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary. Picture used with permission from the Zambian Eye.

In the last 22 years, several radio and TV stations have opened, but have mostly been restricted to particular regions, with some submitting applications to expand their coverage nationally. These applications have been pending with hope for approval increasing with the new Patriotic Front (PF) government, whose manifesto promises the “opening up of airwaves”, especially given that President Sata, as an opposition leader, was never given any positive coverage, if covered at all.

Last September, Sata brought on Mwamba, from the restive Western Province where part of the population is fighting for secession, as the head of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

With gusto, Mwamba, a journalist better known for his role as press aide for Zambia’s second president, the late Frederick Chiluba, went into overdrive cancelling his predecessor’s projects such as the digital migration tender, and announced major changes in the public media. Among his accomplishments in the short time he was civil service head of the Information Ministry was granting the wishes of the some radio stations to broadcast nationally. He also allowed some Muslim-affiliated radio stations to start test transmissions. Notably, he pushed for state-controlled media to have a strong online presence.

Mwamba however burnt his fingers on the issue of licences.

He was told off by President Sata for thinking that he was cleverer than previous permanent secretaries who never approved any of the controversial applications, least of all allowing private stations to broadcast nationally. He said:

You Mr. Emmanuel Mwamba, do you think all the Permanent Secretaries before you were stupid not to issue the licence to Radio Phoenix? You want [opposition United Party for National Development Hakainde Hichilema] HH to be using the same radio station while sitting… Are you the only clever permanent secretary? Was the previous government foolish? […] Do you know why they [applications] were pending? Are you aware that Radio Phoenix has been bought by outsiders and that can endanger national integrity? Do you know why previous government had only allowed ZNBC to be the only national broadcaster?

After Mwamba was lambasted by President Sata, who also cancelled national licences of Radio Phoenix and QFM and operating licenses for non-Christian radio stations, a statement followed shortly that he had been transferred from the Information Ministry to Cabinet Office in the same capacity but in an unspecified role. Two days later, he was fired from the civil service altogether.

Civic organisation Operation Young Vote, through its executive director Guess Nyirenda, issued a statement condemning Sata’s stand:

The directive by the President to have the licenses revoked less than a month after the PF Government issued them through PS [Permanent Secretary] Mwamba is not only retrogressive but also a confirmation of the PF’s desire to keep Zambians starved of the much needed information that would ensure media growth and democracy […] The President’s categorical expression of fear for the opposition and Hakainde Hichilema (HH) in particular on being on Private National Media is testimony that the PF stands ready to disregard their manifesto when it suits them and further not to allow Zambians access rich, correct and true information on which to base their decisions now and in the future.

A reader on citizen journalism website Zambian Watchdog questioned the reasoning behind the cancellation of the radio licences, saying:

But w[h]at is wrong with the issuance of nationwide broadcasting licenses? I remember when President Sata was still in the opposition, he perpetualy [sic] complained about the limitation of both RADIO and TV coverage. Could it be that he was speaking purely out of ignora………… [ignorance].

The whole affair, including Sata's utterances on the cancelled licenses, explains why the Freedom of Information Bill, renamed Access to Information Bill, has never been enacted into a substantive law for years and also why the ZNBC and Independent Broadcasting Acts (IBA) have not been fully operationalized or just recently operationalized in the case of the latter.

The Freedom of Information Bill or the Access to Information Bill as it is now known, once enacted into law, is supposed to allow citizens in general to access publicly held information on any matter in writing and where this information cannot be released, a reason is supposed to be given to the person requesting it. Subsequent administrations have given security as one of the reasons to delay its passing.

On the other hand the ZNBC Act, which has only been partially operationalized, is supposed to make the national broadcaster into a public institution running independently with board members not being answerable to government. To date, ZNBC is still directly controlled by the ministry of information through the permanent secretary who is also a member of the institution's board.

The IBA Act provides for the establishment of an independent board to look into matters of broadcasting through licencing and monitoring of compliance of laws and regulations of all broadcasting stations but, incidentally, government still controls most of the functions of the Independent Broadcasting Authority.

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