Zambia's newly appointed minister of information, Chishimba Kambwili, has pledged to close down Zambian Watchdog, one of the country's few independent online news sources focused on political and investigative reporting.
Kambwili, who held various ministerial portfolios ranging from Foreign Affairs to Labour and Youth and Sport under the late President Michael Sata, is well known for his political combativeness. Freshly appointed to his post by President Edgar Lungu, whose government is just three weeks old, Kambwili has attracted heavy criticism on social media.
The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has direct oversight of state-owned media outlets like the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation, Zambia News and Information Service, Zambia Daily Mail, and Times of Zambia. It also issues broadcasting licences and determines the radius of the permitted signal. Zambia's minister of information also serves as the government's chief spokesperson.
Just days after he was sworn in, Kambwili stated publicly:
How can an online publication start reporting maliciously on an individual for 15 days, I can't allow that to happen as a newly appointed Information Minister. If it take[s] the FBI to ensure that I close Watchdog, I will do so […] I have never started something that has failed, I will bring the Watchdog down that I can tell you.
The Panos Institute of Southern Africa (PSAf) reacted to Kambwili’s statement soon after, challenging him to champion the promotion of a free and pluralistic media:
We encourage Minister Kambwili to prioritise addressing the various stumbling blocks to the development of the media sector in Zambia. PSAf believes only a free, independent and pluralistic media can provide information and news that can promote development and democracy.
In the run-up to the January 20 election to replace now-former President Sata, who died on October 28, 2014, Kambwili stormed the state-controlled Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) and threatened to fire all its employees. ZNBC posted its board chairman’s statement on its website at the time:
What happened last night where Minister of Youth and Sports Chishimba Kambwili and PF Deputy Secretary General Anthony Kasolo stormed ZNBC Newsroom harassed and ordered Mr Kenneth Maduma Director of News and Current Affairs in front of his staff, to remove the stories on Honourable Inonge Wina and the UPND President Mr Hakainde Hichilema,is unacceptable and should be condemned in strongest terms.
The threats by Mr Kambwili to dismiss Mr Maduma and his staff from employment on account of doing their professional work, does not only amount to abuse of authority of office, and a crime, but it also takes away the dignity of a person of his standing in society.
Kambwili later denied storming the ZNBC studios, saying he and Kasolo had been invited its offices. The incident naturally left netizens concerned about Kambwili's appointment.
Facebook user Patrick Sikana wondered why President Lungu would appoint Kambwili, who is not known for diplomacy. He wrote:
Oh dear! Apart from the fact that it's the president's prerogative, I have searched and re-searched for a possible explanation behind the appointment of Kambwili as information minister. Trying to find a good reason … I ended up with a guess:
The President's top priority right now is not our bread and butter. It is to get re-elected next year. With less than 2 years to that election, the president knows 2 things: time is of the essence, and (demeaning as this may sound), he knows that it's not decency that wins elections in Zambia. It is propaganda.
So he doesn't need a spin doctor who will waste time “thinking” about the consequences of what he says. He needs someone who will churn out a diarrhea of sarcasm, empty slogans, smear messages and unpolished lies…. No one fits that profile better than Kambwili. Someone's being “smart” here!
The Zambia Union of Journalists (ZUJ), a trade union representing workers in state-owned media houses, welcomed Kambwili's appointment. As acting Labour Minister (a position he held prior to his current appointment), Kambwili promised to resolve liquidity problems at the Times of Zambia, a statement he reiterated just after he was sworn in as information minister.
ZUJ General Secretary, Angela Chishimba welcomed Kambwili's appointment on her Facebook page:
The Zambia Union of Journalists (ZUJ) is pleased with the appointment of Honourable Chishimba Kambwili as Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services. We know Mr Kambwili as a man of action and we believe he will act upon the challenges faced by the public media. We remember his move to help Times Printpak Zambia Limited employees when he acted as Minister of Labour.
Zambian Watchdog has faced threats of closure in the past. The site has been blocked within Zambia on numerous occasions, and reporters have been arrested because of suspected associations with the website.
United Kingdom-based Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI) said in a statement after Kambwili's threat to close down the news website:
Mr Kambwili’s statements are clearly intended to silence, through fear, one of the few independent sources of information in Zambia. Our mission is to help independent media resist such threats and abusive legal challenges. We will continue to stand by the Zambian Watchdog as we stand by other independent media all over the world