Political atmosphere is very rough, notes German envoy

GERMAN Ambassador to Zambia Anne Wagner-Mitchell says currently, the political atmosphere in Zambia is very rough and the freedom of the media is under threat.

During the training of journalists in safety and security on Monday organised by Bloggers of Zambia, Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said Zambia was going through very important and very challenging times.

“Let me focus my remarks on two things: First, on the critical role of journalists especially in the election period. Second, on the crucial role of the police in a democracy and how strengthening police and media relation is an important way to strengthen democracies,” she said.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said the task of journalists is to verify and distribute information, and this information distribution was the basis for open and honest public debate in a democracy.

She said a free press with high qualitative and ethical standards actually plays a decisive role in social, economic and democratic development in general.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said only by reporting on tough issues, on instances of mismanagement and the real challenges that government and society face, the pressure on the authorities to change things for the better rise.

She said in a democracy everybody should have a high interest in protecting the freedom of the press and in ensuring journalists can and would report literally “without fear or favour”.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell noted that Zambia had a history of multiparty democracy and peaceful elections.

“But currently, the political atmosphere is very rough and the freedom of the media is under threat. Journalists have been intimidated or harassed for doing their job,” she said.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said some media outlets had been forced to shut down altogether because of violence or because other political pressure.

She said some journalists pulled back from their jobs because political cadres had attacked radio stations, threatened them or politicians featuring on their shows and tried to stop radio programmes live on air.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said this was a terrible outcome for democracy.

“Before I turn to the role of the police, let me add that in your role you also have a big responsibility in a democracy. Democracy is a competition of ideas. And every politician should have an equitable chance to distribute his or her ideas through the media,” she said. “Such equitable access to the media, as a key alternative to in-person campaign events, is important especially in this pandemic. Through the media, voters can inform themselves of their choices between leaders, parties and programmes.”

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said the mass media was at the heart of “this matter, especially the state-owned media with nation-wide coverage”.

She, however, said from the many interactions she has had with representatives of the opposition she realised that that public-funded media was not equitably accessible to all political parties.

“Let me emphasise again: It is important that media, both publicly and privately owned, should give equitable opportunities for all Zambians to know about all political players and their political programmes and manifestos. So, if there are journalists from ZNBC or the state-owned print media here, please try to promote the idea in your media houses that the state-own media, financed by tax payers in Zambia, should be a source of fair and professional reporting – and it should not just promote the agenda of the one side,” she said. “I am heartened by statements from the Ministry of Information and the Independent Broadcasting Authority on an equitable access to the media and I hope this will become a reality and normality in the next weeks and months, and a permanent feature of the Zambian media environment.”

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell commended the courageous and committed journalists who stand up for the principles of democracy and who were ready to take risks to report fairly and professionally on the issues that touch the people of Zambia and the country as a whole.

“You are here today to learn about your own safety and security. However, it should not just be your duty to ensure your safety. It is important for all key institutions with a mandate concerning the elections to perform their respective functions in a manner that inspires a peaceful, non-violent atmosphere around the elections,” Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said. “These include besides the media the Electoral Commission of Zambia, all political parties, civil society, the Judiciary and last but not least, the Zambia Police Service.”

She said the task of the police, in Zambia like in any other democracy, was to protect the rule of law, which means to protect both public order but also – equally important – to protect fundamental freedoms, like the freedom of assembly and the freedom of the press, and individual rights like the right to physical integrity.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said she was happy that Zambia was committed to the tenets of fundamental rights, freedoms of the individual and the rule of law in its Constitution.

She said sometimes, these rights and freedom may be in conflict.

“For example, when there is a risk that an assembly may provoke violence. And we all know that there are no unlimited freedoms. But, in order to balance these rights and interests, it is vital that regulating and limiting fundamental freedoms is done both in a proportionate and non-partisan way,” she said. “Also regarding the media, both classic media and online media, rules and regulations must be applied equally – for the rule of law to prevail. Especially in the electoral period, it is important that a level playing field can be created, which we should consider as one of the prerequisites of free and fair elections.”

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said that requires high levels of professionalism and political neutrality to be exercised by all agencies charged with the maintenance of law and order.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell said the space for political players and the journalists covering their messages had to be protected.

“And all efforts need to be made to stop violence, during the 2021 elections in Zambia, and beyond,” she said.

Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell appealed to Inspector General of Police Kakoma Kanganja to convey to all his officers that the role of police was to defend the laws and values of the Republic of Zambia.

She said the police should defend democracy, defend the competition of ideas and provide a safe space in which democracy can be exercised.

“I wish that in a few months’ time, in August (or after a second round in September) Zambians will be able to look back and say, with a great sense of pride and self-congratulation, that the nation held peaceful and credible elections,” said Ambassador Wagner-Mitchell. “As Germany, we will continue engaging the government and all other stakeholders in this election to achieve this goal and to maintain peace, which is essential for democracy and economic development.”

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