The Zambian government has rejected a draft constitution that would have prevented it from interfering with online and electronic news media, even though it spent more than $50 million to draft it.
Instead, the government is drafting a law that would regulate online news media in order to stop what it called "Internet abuse." It is unclear whether the law would also regulate social media such as Twitter and Facebook.
The draft constitution was crafted last year by lawyers, senior government officials, civil society organizations and media organizations, among others, and was financed by the Zambian government with the aim of replacing the current constitution. But some clauses of the draft constitution unsettled the government, including those that said broadcast and electronic news media would be subject to licensing procedures necessary to regulate signals and signal distribution, but would be free from political interference.
In Zambia, as in many other African countries, the Internet has emerged as a news source because of strict government controls on mainstream media. So, African governments have become increasingly concerned about online news and social media sites being used to express opposition opinions, and with the use of social media to plan protests. Social media played a pivotal role in protests that led to the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.
In this context, Zambian President Michael Sata said this week that Zambia does not need a new constitution because the country already has a functional constitution.
"In this country, we don't need a new constitution. If there was no functioning constitution, there would be nothing happening in Zambia and people would not have rights and freedom to do what they want," Sata said.
Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services Permanent Secretary Bert Mushala said last week the mushrooming of online news media in the country has greatly contributed to "Internet abuse" and cybercrime, because online news media is not being regulated.
The Zambian government is not happy about "false stories," including gossip about senior government official, published online by news media, Mushala said.
Authorities have already blocked local access to online news media that has been critical of the government, including the Zambia Watchdog and Zambia Reports.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said it is concerned about the Zambian government's move to introduce a law to regulate online news media.
"We are concerned that this move could be motivated by political censorship, especially since it follows government's crackdowns on critical news sites," said Tom Rhodes, the CPJ east Africa representative via email. "Laws concerned with Internet security can quickly turn into weapons against journalists and the freedom of the new digital media."
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