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By Sabiiti Sylivestre

Can private media in Zambia today pride itself in being factual, impartial and accurate in their information dissemination to the public?  The answer is no if you ask some of Zambian media analysts. The main reason is a heavy polarization of the privately owned media influenced by the partisan and selfish interests of political leaders.

In a nation described as authoritarian by most international think tanks, media ownership in Zambia is something close to complete state control of information both indirectly and directly.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) is the national broadcasting regulator in Zambia. It sets out a strong regulatory frame work that makes the survival and sustainability of a privately owned media outlets almost impossible.

The IBA amendment act of 2002 asserts that no person shall be free to provide broadcasting services if not of Zambian decent. With most of its 14 million people living on less than 1 USD per month, the establishment and effective running of private media in Zambia remains a dream for many.

Each media house has to have a working license. The IBA holds the rights to revoke this license for any media house critical of the government. The reason cited for suspension of licenses for critical media outlets is that their reports are a security breach.

According to Mr. Thomas Zulu, the Programs Coordinator of the Media Institute of South Africa in Zambia, the private media is forced into self-censorship, trade ethics for business or the paltry private media sponsorships from government. Many analysts content that the private media lack an independent editorial policy. 

In an interview, Zulu says such restrictions however do not spare the state owned media. He says there are laws that require state owned outlets to broadcast or publish only what the regime wants to the management get suspended.

The independent media space in Zambia continues to suffer unprecedented attacks and sanctions from the government.  This leaves the independent media houses with two options, to either bow down to the government pressure or risk suspensions and closure.

The 22nd August 2016 saw the suspension of three independent news agencies by the Independent Broadcasting Authority. IBA suspended the broadcasting licenses for Muvi TV, Komboni Radio and ItezhiTezhi Radio respectively for what it termed as "unprofessional conduct posing a risk to national peace and stability".

The IBA cited section 29 (1)(j) of the IBA amendment act of 2010 which cites that "the IBA board may cancel a broadcasting license if the cancellation of the license is necessary in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order".

MUVI Television is one of Zambia's few independent media outlets that carry dissenting views and critical opinions.

Zulu says there are over 116 radio licenses in Zambia with only 45 of them operational. He cites the lack of sustainability as a major impeding factor in the survival of private media outlets.

“Theindependentmediahouse has to be in good books with the government to get the private media sponsorships,” he said.

Many private media owners are harassed by the politicians.  “The politicians do not want to hear divergent views; many don’t want to be held accountable,” Zulu says.

Many journalists are barred from attending government conferences if their media house is usually critical to the government.  “The country has witnessed a wave of attacks on private media houses in an attempt to halt the airing of some programmes,” he said.

The suspension of the private media space is not only a threat to the freedoms of the media or violating freedom to access and impart information but also a violation of the Zambian constitution“The constitution preamble says Zambia will uphold values of democracy, accountability and good governance,” says Zulu. “These are only possible where there is freedom of expression,” he adds.