The war should be on joblessness and poverty not individuals

The presidents change, the Members of Parliament come and go but the dull ache of predictability that accompanies intimidation and arrests of people who oppose government stays the same. If there is anything that one would hope for are the changes in the way we do our politics and in the promotion of the rule of law.

Last time it was President Michael Sata when he was in opposition, this time, it is Dr. Nevers Mumba, leader of the opposition Movement for Multi-party president (MMD), and who knows; next time, it might be me, you or someone else. Do politicians ever learn from their own experiences? It seems they don’t. If they did, we would not be seeing Dr. Mumba and seven other members of his party being arrested by the state police for what has been termed “unlawful assembly”. Experts have described these arrests as being politically motivated although Government through the official spokesperson and Minister of Information, Hon. Kennedy Sakeni has denied these allegations saying the police “are professionals” who do not receive instructions from anyone.

It is easy to see that the police are acting under instructions from the executive as this is coming few months after the abduction and deportation of a Catholic priest of Rwandese origin. Father Viateur Banyangandora, 40, was in August this year deported without being given a chance to defend himself. Reasons for expelling him have not been made public but the Minister of Home Affairs, Mr. Edgar Lungu, issued a statement saying his “conduct was found to be a danger to peace and good order in Zambia”. The Government has since revoked the deportation order after relentless pressure from the Church, Members of Parliament and some civil rights groups. According to sources at his parish in Lundazi, some 800 kilometres east of the capital, his Sunday homily “was about the haves sharing with the have nots as the readings of the day were saying”.

When the Patriotic Front formed Government, expectations were high. The nation really thought that things would change for the better and that the nation, under the PF Government, was poised for a major take off on all fronts.  But with the arrest and charging of Mr. Nevers Mumba with unlawful assembly, one wonders where the country is heading to. According to media reports, Dr. Mumba, who is president of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), was arrested by the Zambian police on 10 December, during a visit to Kitwe on the Copperbelt.  Police accused Dr. Mumba of “unlawful assembly” and “conduct likely to breach the peace.” The eight arrested have since spent two nights in police custody. 

This has left many people wondering whether what they voted for was (real) change or alteration in personalities but old tactics of using the police to silence opponents go. While in opposition, President Michael Sata made a forceful appeal to the Zambians to vote for him because he was coming to change the way we do our politics. But from what we are seeing, nothing is changing in the way the rule of law is being administered. 

Mr. Sata should be reminded that when the people of Zambia elected him on 20 September 2012, they wanted the Patriotic Front (PF) to entrench a democratic culture, create jobs, improve the earning capacity of the ordinary people, eradicate corruption and promote of the rule of law.  Under the 20-year rule of the MMD Government, it had become apparent that poor governance, mismanagement and endemic corruption had become the order of the day.

Soon after his election as Zambia’s fifth president, Mr. Sata, a practising Catholic sounded a good start when he vowed to lead a clean Government which he would govern according to the “Ten Commandments” - though it has never really been explained what “governing according to the Ten Commandments of the Bible” means.

The initial steps of the new PF Government were encouraging. The move by the new President, Michael Sata, to unconditionally release the Barotseland activists arrested by the previous MMD Government was one such laudable positive step towards entrenching confidence in the respect for human rights. President Sata received deserved praise for pardoning 22 activities.

President Sata went a step further and appointed a leading Human Rights lawyer, Dr. Rodger Chongwe to head a Commission of Inquiry that would look into the grievances of the Barotseland activists -leading to the Mongu Riots. The tragic events of Barotseland in the Western Province culminated into violence, injuries and the loss of 2 lives on 14 January 2011. This was as a result of the Zambia Police opening live ammunition on a defenceless crowd of people. Several Barotseland activities were detained in the aftermath.

The Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) has since raised the flag to the worrying governance emerging under the Patriotic Front Government. The lawyers through their umbrella association have described what is happening as a “breakdown of rule of law”.

Independent observers have called on the Government to devote their time to fighting poverty and joblessness as opposite to waging war against individuals.

The Media and Human Rights

In June 2011, Bonn, Germany, was the centre of the world’s attention as experts from the realms of politics, science, academics, civil society and the media converged to discuss the role of the media in promoting human rights.

Catarina de Albuquerque shared a very interesting story. She said: “When urinating and defecating became a criminal offence in California, Tim decided to create his own enclosed toilet. He raised a tent behind a War-Mart, cut out a hole on the chair and attached to it plastic containers. He wanted homeless people like him (especially women) to have some privacy when answering the call of nature. They would also not breach the law. Tim would then collect the full plastic containers and empty them in some bathroom in the city and bring them back empty – ensuring the improvised toilet was back in place again. Tim lives on the street in the United States. He is considered a human rights hero because he tried to ensure there is sanitation for his fellow homeless citizens.”

The story was not reported by the media but by Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation. She points out that stories like this often go unreported because less people expect to encounter violations of human rights in developed countries. But they do happen and the media should report about them because the media should defend human rights – at least that is what many people expect from the media.

“Tell the stories of the people you have met who are suffering violations,” says de Albuquerque. “Don’t forget the silent suffering of people who get a lot less attention. Bring these stories to the fore,” she adds.

During the conference in Bonn, one clear thing was that the media has no explicit role of promoting human rights. Its role is to inform its target groups of things not working in society, and of things not respected as they should be.

At the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum, Catarina de Albuquerque advised journalists to “get it right” when it comes to human rights. In the same way the public and human rights activists should get it right when it comes to promoting human rights.

 “First of all learn about human rights beyond a fundamental level. After all, human rights are a basic international law. If the government or any other party breaches those rights, they breach the law,” says Catarina, the UN independent expert.

While I agree with Catarina de Albuquerque that the media has an important role in exposing human rights abuses, it is not that easy especially in Africa. African governments are intolerant to any stories that depict or seem to expose their incompetence or inability to protect and promote human rights. In Zambia, for example, the government is sometimes in the forefront of violating the rights of innocent citizens. The shooting of unarmed citizens in Mongu of the Western Province is a case in point. The government unleashed the police on citizens who wanted to hold a peaceful demonstration to register their displeasure towards the state’s inability to develop Western Province. Some people were shot dead while several others were put in jail with gunshot wounds.

It wasn’t easy to report these stories and even get clear statistics of the people who were killed and those who were wounded because government controls the majority of the media in the country.

Human rights reporting is more than about abstract legal issues. Mostly people who are at the centre of these stories are vulnerable people, who have been exposed to traumatic acts, involving sexual violence, medical or other forms of mistreatments. Doing justice to their accounts requires research, knowledge and sensitivity - and in some cases genuine personal courage.

Most journalists are well equipped to question powerful politicians or business people, but what is needed is to sharpen their interviewing skills necessary when working with the powerless groups.

In order to overcome these challenges we need to encourage what the Minister for Federal Affairs, Europe and the media, State of North Rhine - Westphalia in Germany, Dr. Angelica Schwall - Duren, suggests: “(encouraging) the existence of the free media is essential to upholding human rights.”

This is what the Zambian government should also work upon - set the journalists free and encourage the proliferation of media houses.

Charles Mafa - Journalist, Zambia


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