Watchdog thumbs nose at government

Not dead: Zambia's President Michael Sata reviews a guard of honour before opening the Zambian Parliament on September 19 in Lusaka. His collapse was photographed by the Zambian Watchdog. (AFP)

Not dead: Zambia's President Michael Sata reviews a guard of honour before opening the Zambian Parliament on September 19 in Lusaka. His collapse was photographed by the Zambian Watchdog. (AFP)

A feisty Zambian website is showing how the smart use of new media can circumvent official attempts to silence critical voices.

  The Zambian Watchdog ( styles itself as “a Zambian online newspaper specialising in investigative reporting and analysis”. Much of its coverage is political, with a strong emphasis currently on the health of President Michael Sata and jostling to do with his succession.

Sata (77) has been battling ill health, and the government and his family have repeatedly had to deny that he is dead, most recently when he failed to honour a speaking engagement at the United Nations in New York.

Opening the Lusaka Parliament a few weeks ago with a speech that was reportedly confused and rambling, he told legislators: “I am not dead.”

Even though journalists from private sector media were barred from Parliament for the event, allegedly to prevent details of his health being reported, the Zambian Watchdog team caught a picture of Sata collapsing after forcing himself to inspect a military parade.

The journalism is colourful and opinionated. In reporting the collapse at Parliament, the site said that members of Sata’s Patriotic Front were “very cruel to allow such a person to continue [to] preside over hectic and serious national matters”. In another story, a headline declared that a particular motivational speaker had “finally” been arrested for fraud.

The site is forced to operate clandestinely because it is unregistered as a media operation as required by Zambian law. The site’s editor, Lloyd Himaambo, told me it had been registered but the certificate had gone missing during a police raid some time ago. There are no bylines, and Himaambo himself is based in Britain. The team of part-time writers operate without a common base; many don’t even know each other. A recent workshop in Johannesburg, arranged for the team, saw several meet up for the first time.

A number of journalists have faced criminal charges, allegedly for links to the site. Last week, Zambian Watchdog triumphantly reported that freelancer Wilson Pondamali had been acquitted of charges of possessing military pamphlets, “much to the disappointment of the state”.

It was the fourth “trumped-up charge the journalist has been acquitted of within a year”, it reported, adding that he was among journalists facing charges for links to Zambian Watchdog.

The site itself is blocked within Zambia, Himaambo said, which means only people outside the country can get access to it. There are ways of using proxy services to bypass the block, but these are too complex to assist the general reader.

But here’s the interesting part: the site also runs a Facebook page, where all its material is posted. It has built up almost 226 000 likes in just over a year since Zambian Watchdog began operating. And both the website and the Facebook page draw lively interaction with audiences.

Earlier this week, the site ran a story about the closure of an agricultural college after a student boycott. Overnight, the story had 72 likes and 97 comments, with a debate raging about whether the problems at the campus could be laid at the door of the ruling party.

Readers also use the page to send tips and queries for investigation. Somebody who wanted to remain anonymous asked for an investigation into outstanding monies owed to a group of about 3 500 people, presumably civil servants, who took voluntary separation packages in 1999. Another user posted a photograph of a letter soliciting donations for a commemorative event from other civil servants.

The lesson of the Zambian Watchdog is that new and social media make it much harder – almost impossible – to put the lid on critical reporting and debate. And it is clear that Zambians are hungry for a space in which they can freely debate the issues of the day. South African online media find a similar eagerness for discussion, and grapple with various approaches to the ongoing challenge of moderating comment sections. Too easily, the discussion is taken over by trolls.

On the Zambian Watchdog platforms, there does not seem to be any moderation at all: it is simply too small a team to be able to put much of a system in place. The comments are accordingly often vigorous, to put it mildly.

Working in this loose, semi-clandestine way, as the Zambian Watchdog does, makes it difficult to ensure editorial consistency and standards. The reporting sometimes moves very easily from a factual tone to analysis, speculation and then straight opinion. At the Johannesburg workshop, for instance, one of the discussions was about the almost routine use of the phrase “ailing dictator” to describe Sata, who was elected in 2011.

Admittedly, the tone of Zambian politics is pretty robust.

All in all, the Zambian Watchdog adds a significant dimension to the Zambian media landscape, using new media to thumb its nose at the powers that be.

The Mail & Guardian ombud provides an independent view of the paper’s journalism. If you have any complaints you would like addressed, you can contact him at [email protected] You can also phone the paper on 011 250 7300.



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