Zambian journalist Thomas Zgambo was arrested by government security forces and charged with sedition on July 9. Journalist and media studies scholar Clayson Hamasaka was arrested on the same day but later released.
Advocates suspect that both events were triggered by suspicion that the journalists were affiliated with the Zambian Watchdog, an independent citizen media outlet that has withstood multiple threats from government actors since September 2011.Hamasaka and Zgambo were each arrested at their respective homes in Lusaka, Zambia's capital. Security officers raided their homes carrying search warrants and claiming they were investigating both men for drug-related crimes.
Officials from the municipal police department, Drug Enforcement Commission, Anti-Corruption Commission and Zambia Security and Intelligence Services (part of Zambia's executive branch), seized computers, memory sticks, mobile phones and documents at both of the men's homes before taking them into custody.
Hamasaka and Zgambo were interrogated for over 40 hours. Zgambo, formerly a reporter for the state-owned Zambia Daily Mail, was charged with sedition after authorities allegedly found handwritten notes concerning President Michael Sata in his home. He has since been released, but authorities say they will continue to investigate his case. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison. Hamasaka, a former media studies professor at state-run Evelyn Hone College, was released without charges.
Whether or not the two journalists are connected to the Zambian Watchdog is unknown. But their detention did not affect the publication of the popular citizen news site — the Watchdog continued to publish stories during their detention, including one covering the arrests. Apart from editor Lloyd Himambo, who lives in exile, contributors to the website are deliberately kept anonymous in order to protect their safety.
Hamasaka was fired from his teaching job at Evelyn Hone last year when, as the College’s radio station manager, he allowed an opposition leader to appear on it. His wife was fired for unknown reasons from a state-run water utility company a few weeks later.
Quite obviously, I have no idea what the officers were looking for in their early morning search of Mr. Hamasaka’s home. What I do know is that dawn raids on private citizens who have not been charged with any offence should raise eyebrows in a democracy (or had Mr. Hamasaka been charged and I missed it??) Seeing as I have no facts, I will not make any presumptions about what law Mr Hamasaka may have broken which then led to his family’s trauma.
I will say though that I hope the nation will be informed as to how decisions are made to carry out searches against citizens especially such traumatic ones. Was Mr Hamasaka believed to be dangerous, or a flight risk?
I ask these questions in order to express my deep alarm at what seems to my, quite possibly untrained, eye to be the long strides backwards Zambia is taking as regards rule of law, respect for human rights and governance under the PF government.
Panos Institute Southern Africa (PSAf) expressed serious concern for attacks against online journalists:
The attacks on journalists have created unnecessary fear and anxiety among media practitioners, especially those working for online publications, thus limiting the ability of the media to serve the society better. This is a major affront to democracy and freedom of expression in the country.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia saw the raids as evidence of diminishing protections for human rights in the country:
We consider the raid on the two journalists’ homes and their subsequent confinement at Zambia Police Headquarters as illegal and an indication that Zambia’s human right[s] record is deteriorating. It is worrying that the two who are not criminals were subject [to] an early morning Police Raid although there is no state of emergency in the country where people’s human rights can be suspended.
Earlier this year, Hamasaka threatened to sue Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba, who is also the ruling party’s secretary general. Following Hamasaka's arrest, Kabimba described reasons for his dismissal that Hamasaka himself was never given by authorities. Kabimba was quoted saying:
It is not true that Mr. Clayson Hamasaka was dismissed from employment on account of featuring an opposition party leader on a Hone FM radio programme. He was dismissed after complaints of victimisation from members of staff who did not belong to his political party, UPND.