It has been eight months since Zambian president Edgar Lungu shut down The Post, Zambia’s widest circulating newspaper. Continued harassment of The Post newspaper’s former employees has been drawn to South Africa’s attention by NUMSA’s statement released last week which condemned Edgar Lungu and his administration for its actions.
Since then, the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) has condemned the NUMSA statement, the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) has come under attack for defending The Post and the Zambia Medical Association (ZMA) has issued a statement condemning the government’s sustained intimidation tactics.
While the Zambian government has had a long record of criticising The Post, Lungu has mobilised a number of resources at his disposal to silence voices of dissent, in this case on the pretext of a disputed tax debt. Lungu is a recent addition to the list of state leaders clamping down on press freedom across the world, despite freedom of expression being an entrenched clause in Zambia’s constitution.
South Africa’s history of press censorship is most closely associated with apartheid, although press censorship more recently manifested itself in Hlaudi Motsoeneng’s 2016 ban on broadcasting footage of what he called ‘violent’ protest. In Tanzania, the government has implemented a number of legal instruments that has resulted in the arrests of two citizens and plagued the media with fear of government dissent. In Egypt, hundreds of media personnel have faced arrest in the last several months. In Myanmar, Honduras and Sri Lanka, journalists have been assaulted and killed in addition to laws being passed against press freedom.
Each of these cases have a nuanced history that has contributed to what seems like an exceptional moment – most infamously characterised by Trumpism but prevalent in the very construction of any nation state – but this global trend of clamping down on press freedom demonstrates a long overdue and extremely urgent necessity for cross-continental solidarity against an increasingly violent and repressive global regime.
If we are taking these and other cases seriously, we need to consistently ask ourselves who is benefitting from the violation of freedom of expression. One of the reasons that The Post was circulated so widely since its launch as The Weekly Post in July 1991 was because it provided a platform for the voices of the working class majority.
With this in mind, our commitment to journalistic integrity and socioeconomic justice should be urgently reinvigorated. Shutting down The Post has not only silenced the criticism directly aimed at Edgar Lungu and his administration but has also prevented the circulation of all forms of information disseminated by the newspaper such as issues pertaining to arts, culture, health, business and various other topics.
Contrary to the journalistic pedagogy of neutrality that is upheld by media training institutions, it is imperative that the journalist adopts a clear and radical stance that is not defined by the myth of objectivity.
By trying to maintain a position of impartiality, the journalist sits in the middle of a see-saw that has long been tilted in favour of the oppressor thus guaranteeing a slide towards the fascist right. The social order does not and has never allowed for objectivity to exist; neutrality inherently disenfranchises and dispossesses the working class.
Following this, it cannot be ignored that NUMSA has demanded a huge call to action precisely because what is happening to the global media is a huge threat to the lives and livelihoods of the most precarious members of society. NUMSA’s call to action, LAZ’s legal support and the ZMA’s public stance is what taking The Post’s situation seriously looks like, but we must also realise that a statement or a call to action by a select few bodies, even if one of them is the biggest trade union in South Africa, is not enough.
Solidarity is a continuous praxis that is sometimes characterised by marches to embassies and other strategic spaces for disruption of business as usual, but needs to be sustained by a daily obligation to dismantle the structures that privilege the minority elite. How do we create and sustain the conditions for resistance? What questions are we asking, who and what are we problematising? The role of the journalist in an unjust society is also to be an organiser; given their position as storytellers, they are responsible for conscientising all factions of society.
A progressive press is one that identifies itself with the lived experiences of the majority. It does not just cover or report; it amplifies, it educates, it mobilises.