The last statement Chishimba Kambwili made as Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services was to attack and criminalise The Mast as an illegal newspaper.
Kambwili urged the police to immediately stop the operations of The Mast and ensure that those behind it face the wrath of the law. Kambwili’s remarks were carried by the state-owned and government controlled Times of Zambia on the same day he was fired as minister by Edgar Lungu. And this is where the unlimited access and positive coverage he had from the Times of Zambia and other state-owned and government controlled news media outlets ended. The following day, the Times of Zambia, and other state-owned and government controlled news media outlets, came out reporting about Kambwili’s dismissal but with no comment from him. Since then, Kambwili’s voice has never been heard in these news media outlets. The only publication that carried his side of the story was the same newspaper Kambwili had declared ‘illegal’ and wanted stopped.
When in government, Kambwili was very hostile to the independent press and did everything possible as Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services to curtail the operations and diminish the independence of the free media. But as things turn out in life, today the same news media outlets Kambwili was harassing and wanted closed are the only ones available to him to air out his views and to objectively and truthfully report what is happening to him.
But there are others who feel that Kambwili doesn’t deserve to be covered by the media he tried so much to humiliate and destroy. Our view is that even the worst enemies of a free press deserve fair and objective coverage. Kambwili deserves to be covered by The Mast despite his hostility to a free press when he was in power. And that is why in today’s atmosphere when fundamental principles are at stake in an attempt to purge the press, we should all be more concerned to defend freedom for the demonised newspapers, television and radio stations against those who think that press freedom is not an indivisible right, but a privilege to be doled out only to the deserving.
The strangest thing today is that media liberals, political liberals and civil liberties lobbyists have become very quiet in the face of this naked attempt at cleansing the press. Many have effectively deserted the cause of liberty and gone over to the other side in the political war over press freedom. These developments come at a time when, in the midst of a social and economic crisis and the demise of the old decent politics, a free press has potentially become more important than ever. And a crisis is not only supposed to mean a situation in which things get worse and worse. It means a crossroads, a time for decisions – in this case, about which way we want our country, our politics and our economy to go. There is no serious discussion in this country today about such options or alternatives. This is where a free and open press they are trying to annihilate, in all its forms, could have a role to play in constructing a future.
We shouldn’t cheat ourselves that a free press is not important, it is something we can do without. In the absence of other outlets, the media has become the sole venue for political life. And that being the case, we cannot afford or allow a situation where only one group, that is headed by Edgar, to be the only one with unlimited access to news media outlets. Press freedom is fundamental to our lives and we should not allow it to be a privilege to be handed out only to those who meet the expectations of those in power, of those in the ruling party. Press freedom is not some fluffy but impractical ideal to be butted out of existence by those who disapprove of its consequences. Free press is the fundamental bedrock of liberty of our society. Without a free press, it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to think, say, write, publish, read, hear, love and hate what we choose; other freedoms would also be impossible to imagine. A free press remains our only hope of knowing anything. A free press, in all its forms, is the lifeblood of a free society and a vital citizenry. And that’s why the suppression of a free press has always been the early hallmark of dictatorship. And it is why the flowering of an independent press has often been a sign that democratic change is on the way. Press freedom means allowing others the freedom to publish things that we may not want to see. As George Orwell put it in his 1945 essay on “The Freedom of The Press”, written as an ironically unpublished preface to Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” Freedom of expression is not something to be rationed out like charity, to only the most ‘deserving’ cases. A right is a right, and it is not limited by any incumbent responsibilities. Of course, any good journalist should be prepared to stand up and take responsibility for what they write. But the wish to be covered favourably cannot be used to trample on the freedom of others. And the truth is that, whatever your preferred tastes in the press might be, by far the biggest problem in Zambia is that the press is not free. This can be seen from the arrests, detentions of journalists and the closures of newspapers, radio and television stations. It is not enough to have the Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail, the Daily Nation, ZNBC television and radio and all the other news media outlets that simply conform to everything wanted by those in power. Whether some want to hear it or not, we need more press freedom for all, not less.
We hope Kambwili has learnt something from all this. And we also hope that those Kambwili has left behind in power are also learning something from all this. We hope all will change their ways and develop a better and more progressive attitude towards a free press.