The recent unspeakable tragedy that took place in Christchurch, New Zealand has raised urgent new questions about the balance between freedom of expression and public safety. A lone, radicalised gunman not only went on a shooting spree which killed 50 people and injured scores more, but also this rampage was live-streamed for an agonising 17 minutes on the world’s largest social media platform without interruption.
Now, both private companies and state regulators are grappling with how best to respond to the public outrage. It is clear that we must do a better job of identifying and containing harmful content and toxic inflammatory rhetoric, both in social media and traditional news.
In Africa, we unfortunately have a long history of experience in this area. The most well known case undoubtedly is that of Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) in Rwanda, whose founding editors were determined by a Tribunal to have committed war crimes in 1993-1994 related to their incitement of genocide of up to 1-million Tutsis and other victims.
Unfortunately, at the time, there was no competent or willing regulatory body to halt RTLM’s daily broadcasts calling on militias to ‘sharpen their machetes’ and inciting a deepening spiral of violence.
In Zambia, we have thankfully not suffered any recent comparable tragedies, however, like many nations, the challenge of balancing freedom of expression while also protecting the public’s peace and security is paramount.
This question has been debated in response to the decision by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to issue a 30-day suspension of the broadcasting license of Prime TV, a private news broadcaster. Though this probationary period will already expire on April 2 with Prime TV going back on the air, the suspension has already attracted some misinformed international attention.
The US Embassy called for the suspension to be reversed, while Amnesty International described the intervention as “a ploy to muzzle independent voices.” The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement commenting that the IBA “should not suspend news organisations simply because they report critically and disagree.”
But it was that really the case? Was Prime TV suspended only for its expressed opinions, or was it suspended for airing inflammatory content that failed to meet basic journalistic standards?
It seems that none of these organisations had the opportunity to review the segments that were broadcast by Prime TV which had resulted in their suspension. If they had understood the context of what this broadcaster was doing at the time, it would be very clearly understood that intervention by regulators was in the interest of public safety, and not a suppression of free speech.
Officially, the suspension decision by the IBA — which acts independently of the administration and ruling party — cited numerous violations Prime TV had committed under Section 29 (1) (k) of the IBA Amendment Act (2010). According to the regulator’s statement on the issue, “The Board found that the station has exhibited unprofessional elements in its broadcasting through unbalanced coverage, opinionated news, material likely to incite violence and use of derogatory language.”
Further, during the 30-day suspension, IBA ordered Prime TV to conduct in-house staff training on “basic journalism ethics” in order to improve the quality and reliability of the channel’s reporting.
In retrospect, this temporary penalty seems exceedingly light given the nature of what was broadcast concerning by-elections in Shesheke district on February 12, 2019. At this time, Prime TV had stitched together and selectively edited numerous clips of violent exchanges between cadres of ruling and opposition parties, allegedly using some imagery that was collected earlier and far away from the district.
The accompanying editorialised newscast portrayed one side as a blameless victim, and the other as a remorseless aggressor deserving of revenge strikes. The clashes were amplified, dramatised, and manipulated by Prime TV’s editors to foment public unrest and tribal hatred, with a clear ‘dog whistle’ to invite further political violence.
In fact, it is interesting to note that the leadership of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), which is known to maintain very close ties with the editorial board of Prime TV, would later deny in court filings that any violence had occurred in Sesheke that would have influenced the outcome of the vote. The two contradicting narratives merely highlight the fact that the broadcaster was not interested in objectively reporting events to it viewers.
The misinformed international reaction to the Prime TV suspension is deeply disappointing. At time in which countries such as Tanzania are trying to charge bloggers $900 a year, when Chad has blocked all access to social media for an entire year, and when Zimbabwe is putting journalists in jail over the colour of their umbrellas, it is unfair to malign Zambia for taking responsible, proportional, and lawful action to dissuade broadcasters from airing harmful and misleading content which may contribute to the incitement of violence.
This suspension did not occur over an issue of freedom of expression. Even Prime TV’s Gerald Shawa appeared to acknowledge that the station erred in its Sesheke coverage — his appeal to the authorities requested that the suspension be downgraded to a warning.
There is no reason for any sovereign government to wait for the next Christchurch or Rwanda. We must strive to achieve a balance between open and responsible press freedom while at the same time doing everything necessary to protect the peace and security of the people from the scourge of hate and violence.
It is my hope that the IBA continues to remain vigilant toward all media in Zambia, regardless of their editorial inclinations.
Sunday Chilufya Chanda is the Media Director of Zambia’s governing party, the Patriotic Front. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Mail & Guardian.