Readers of citizen news website the Zambian Watchdog, in a cat-and-mouse game with government authorities who seem eager to close it down, are laughing at a minister who recently claimed that the popular website can no longer be accessed in the country.
Deputy Labor Minister Ronald Chitotela, at a function of a parastatal company under his ministry, told attendees:
[W]e are glad that the Zambian Watchdog is no longer accessible in Zambia and this has forced them to use an Australian company host to anchor their evil articles. That website used to bring confusion in this country because of its writings. I only hope that there is no one here from that website.
Observers widely suspect that the Zambian government has been trying to shut down critical news websites such as the Zambian Watchdog and Zambia Reports for over a year. This isn't the first time government officials have spoken dismissively of the Watchdog — in July, Vice President Guy Scott said he would “celebrate” if the Watchdog were shut down. In separate statements, the government has also threatened to close down social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Readers reacted to the minister’s statement with malice and even contempt at his apparent ignorance of how the Internet works, and the particular situation of the Watchdog. While the website does not show where readers post their comments from, many openly indicate that they are accessing it from within Zambia.
BWANA (Barrister with a nil achievement) wrote [individual comments on Zambian Watchdog do not have permalinks]:
I think this issue of blocking the ZWD [Zambian Watchdog] is a misnomer. Lately the site has been freely accessible; moreover people can use circumventing tools such as Ultrasoft to log in.
A reader, MK gave out instructions of how to access the website:
All those struggling to access zambianwatchdog, please download Opera on your devices and you will be smiling.
Another reader, Oldmadala had this to say:
Do these pf [Patriotic Front, the ruling party] goons know that ZWD is very much accessible within Zambia? Am not even using proxy myself and am accessing the site without any problems. From the look of things, Chitotela thinks one has to go to ‘Australia’ to access the site, what weird thinking! In this era of ICT a Minister still thinking the stone-age way?
On Facebook, the Zambian Watchdog has attracted over 40,000 “likes” since earlier this year, when it resorted to using the social networking site attacks on the site went full throttle. On the ZWD Facebook page, the minister’s story attracted even more comments.
Facebook user Alick Gwanu wrote:
To think you can completely block an un disputably NEEDED and POPULAR social media as the Zambian Watch(The Dog) is illiteracy and warped thinking of the worst order. It is showing on FB. What a collection of leaders.
Nicholas ShiKaunda Shiliya stated:
I guess my Hon d[eputy]/minister has not heard of facebook! To me I have not noticed the difference- the ZWD is still there and though am not on its side, I get another perspective of things.
However, not everyone shared these views — some took the opportunity to be critical of the Watchdog's work. Ephraim Mwepya had no kind words:
Quite frankly, the Zambiwatchdog, whether blocked or accessible represents the worst of gutter journalism
It thrives on half truths, concocted lies, character assassination and slander without its victims having recourse to justice, that's gutter journalism! !!
While readers may disagree on the quality of the Watchdog's reporting, it seems that attempts by the government to shut down alternative news websites, combined with the curious migration of previously critical newspapers such as The Post to the government propaganda bandwagon, have only served to increase the popularity and reach of the ZWD and other similar sites.