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IPI urges government to stop stalling on self-regulation

(IPI/IFEX) - 20 May 2011 - The International Press Institute (IPI) today called on the Zambian Information Minister and the Zambian government to uphold recent promises that the media will be allowed to regulate itself. The global press freedom group also insists that the government continue talks with the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC), which IPI believes should continue with its plans to launch operations.

The Zambian government has reiterated its support for self-regulation on several occasions, including on 25 March when Vice President George Kunda reportedly told Parliament that government would refrain from statutory regulation. But government actions have not matched its words. For self-regulation to work, the government must allow government-owned media houses to participate.

IPI is especially concerned that if ZAMEC fails (because of the non-participation of government media), the government will resort to regulating the media by statute. State-owned media is crucial to any media regulation in Zambia since it is estimated that government-owned media employ nearly 70 per cent of all journalists working in the country.

The country's attorney general has said that ZAMEC's registration in early 2011 was legal, so there are no remaining legal barriers to its launch. But journalists are concerned that without the government's support, more than half of the nation's media workers will not be allowed to participate. The Times of Zambia and the Zambia Daily Mail, the public broadcaster ZNBC, and the Zambian news agency are among the largest and most significant media houses, and these outlets' participation in ZAMEC is critical to its success.

Proponents of ZAMEC believe the government is more interested in strong-arming the media industry ahead of elections. Although the media have sought to address government concerns on self-regulation, their efforts are ignored or they are presented with new obstacles.

On 3 May 2011, ZAMEC's membership adopted a number of measures recommended by IPI that will help to reward compliance and "name and shame" noncompliant media houses, without impinging on press freedom - but this compromise has not softened the government's position. The information minister has stalled discussions with the media for over three months. ZAMEC has already registered, and the attorney general has deemed the registration legal.

"The continued refusal of the government to work with the self-regulatory body smacks of a political desire to control information ahead of this year's general election," said IPI Director Alison Bethel McKenzie. "The tragedy would be if the government, especially after elections are over, found a pretext to regulate the Zambian media by statute, and reneged on their eight-year old legal obligations to create an independent broadcast authority and independent public broadcaster.

"We have negotiated in good faith with the government of Zambia and I am frankly disappointed that their actions have not met their professed commitment to a free and fair media in Zambia," Bethel McKenzie added.

In 2002, legislation was passed to ensure that control of broadcast regulation moved from the Information Minister to an Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), but this has not happened. During IPI's visit to Zambia in October 2010, Information Minister Ronnie Shikapwasha said he could not give radio stations licenses to expand their operations, because that responsibility now belongs to the Broadcasting Authority, which had not been established.

But on 8 April 2011, Shikapwasha threatened to revoke the operating licenses of radio stations that broadcast political campaigns before the date for elections is set, according to a report from the Media Institute of Southern Africa's Zambian chapter. IPI is confused as to why the information minister retains the right to revoke radio licenses, but not to grant them.

"The Zambian government seems to be more efficient at threatening to revoke media licenses than in granting them," said Bethel McKenzie. "The government should act in good faith and ensure that a diversity of news and information - including programming from private news radio stations - is available to all Zambians ahead of the campaign period, in line with Zambian law."

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