Zambia: offensive against independent news websites
During the 2011 presidential election campaign, Patriotic Front leader Michael Sata, the opposition challenger, promised to rid the Zambian media of government interference if elected. It was an attractive promise in a country with just three national dailies and little tradition of media pluralism. Nonetheless, the situation has not improved since Sata’s September 2011 election victory. On the contrary, the Zambian authorities are currently waging a witchhunt against journalists and dealing a series of blows to independent news reporting.
Website blocking and arrests
The old saying that “promises only mean something to those who believe them” has been well and truly confirmed in Zambia during the past two months. In June and July, the authorities blocked two news websites and arrested three journalists presumed to have been working for them or providing them with information.
On 24 June, the government blocked access to Zambian Watchdog, an independent news website that is based abroad and is critical of the current government. Its technicians reacted immediately by moving the site to a new domain name (http://zwd.cums.in) and Reporters Without Borders created a mirror of the site. Despite these measures, Zambian Watchdog is still inaccessible from within Zambia.
The authorities also arrested three of Zambian Watchdog’s presumed contributors: Thomas Zyambo, Clayson Hamasaka and Wilson Pondamali.
- Hamasaka is charged with possessing obscene material.
- Zyambo was freed provisionally after 48 hours in detention. He is facing up to seven years in prison on charges of sedition and “possession of seditious material with intent to publish.”
- Pondamali is facing a possible two-year jail term on a charge of “unlawful possession of a restricted military pamphlet.”
It was the turn of another independent news website, Zambia Reports, to disappear from the Zambian Internet on 16 July. Its staff received no explanation for this latest act of censorship. The blocking of the site was all the more surprising because in March 2012 the site agreed to a request from a member of the government to remove an article despite being under no legal obligation to do so.
This recent wave of arrests and website censorship is the culmination of a new policy of intrusive surveillance in Zambia.
In September 2012, the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Agency (ZICTA) announced that it was implementing a requirement under the 2009 Information and Communication Technologies Act for all mobile phone users to register with their operators.
Each client now had to provide their name, the numbers of their national registration card and driver’s license (for Zambian subscribers), or passport and work permit number (for non-Zambian subscribers), their postal address, their email address and their SIM serial number.
The agency said the sole aim was to combat criminality but Zambian Watchdog insisted that “the secret service also known as Office of the President (OP)” was collecting all the data in order to identify government opponents.
The new surveillance measures are not limited to mobile phones. The NGO Global Voices reported in February that the Zambian government was working with Chinese specialists to install a system of Internet surveillance and control. It quoted an anonymous Zambian Watchdog source as saying:
They have already started their work (…) They have been visiting service providers so as to understand the topology of the network. For those who may not know, [this means] appreciating the network architecture, things like where the servers are so that they know [where] to install their interception devices.
The blocking of Zambia Reports and Zambian Watchdog is clear evidence that the new control devices are now in place. One of the security experts in charge of Zambian Watchdog’s website hosting said it was obvious from the way the Zambian authorities responded to the attempts to bypass the blocking that they were using filtering methods based on Deep Packet Inspection:
After twelve hours we could confirm that malicious traffic was not generated by the readers but was actively injected into the network when a reader was requesting content from the website www.zambianwatchdog.com and that this behaviour could only be explained by the presence of Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) equipment inside Zambia.
Blurring the lines between government and media
The surveillance measures have been accompanied by pressure on the mainstream media. Shortly after Sata was installed as president, a dozen journalists with The Post Newspaper, one of the national dailies, were offered government jobs and the pay to go with it. One of The Post’s journalists told Zambia Reports:
We are living in fear because we don’t know whether to continue debriefing our bosses who in return report us to our government sources. What we’ve now resorted to is self-censorship; we kill these stories the moment we realize they implicate government officials.
We are posting two Zambia Reports articles that were published a year apart (available as PDF files). The first is the most recent one. Entitled “Zambia Requested to Stop Blocking Access to Websites” and published on 25 July 2013, it is an open letter to the information ministry from Zambia Reports in response to the blocking of its website.
It asks the ministry to explain the blocking. It calls for a National Assembly enquiry into online censorship. And it calls for the unblocking of Zambia Reports and all the other the other blocked sites. It also mentions Zambia’s use of Chinese help with installing an Internet surveillance system.
We are posting it here so that the Zambian authorities can read it (because Zambia Reports is still blocked within Zambia) and so that they can resolve what is perhaps no more than a misunderstanding.
The second article, entitled “Patriotic Front Heads Toward Confrontation with Online Media” and published on 25 July 2012, describes the decline in freedom of information in Zambia. Correctly foreseeing what lay ahead, the author concluded:
Despite a very low Internet penetration rate of just ten per cent, there are many people who fear that the government is determined to silence these Internet publications, depriving opponents of the ruling party of a voice to communicate their positions.