Highlighting government officials' increasing displeasure with online newspapers and social media networks in Africa, the Zambian government has blocked access to the Zambian Watchdog newspaper, accusing it of promoting hate speech.
The paper has now resorted to posting stories on its Facebook page in order for Zambian readers to access the content of the newspaper, as they cannot access it through the news site within the country.
The Zambian government is said to have instructed all ISPs (Internet service providers) in the country to block access to the Watchdog news site.
The Zambian government has also arrested two journalists it suspects have reported for the Watchdog, threatening to slap them with the charge of defamation of the president or sedition. The journalists have been detained in different locations and interrogated separately while their laptop computers and cameras have been confiscated by state agents.
The police said one of the journalists was found with a handwritten life history of Zambian President Michael Sata. In Zambia, sedition carries a prison sentence of up to seven years.
"The raid and arbitrary detention of the journalists fits a pattern of harassment on the part of the authorities," said Sue Valentines, Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Zambian Watchdog journalists work undercover for fear of being arrested by the Zambian government. The founder of the Watchdog is already in exile and on a wanted list by the Zambian government.
The website is seen as critical to the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and has come under a series of verbal attacks by the party leadership.
Sata and his ministers had ordered the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, to close the Zambian Watchdog, which it also accuses of being funded and sponsored by opposition political leaders. The news site is, however, hosted outside the country, making it difficult for ZICTA to close it down or block access to it from outside the country.
The Media institute of Southern Africa (MISA), a regional body formed to protect the interests of journalists in Southern Africa, has issued an alert condemning the move by the Zambian government.
"We are particularly concerned about the threat to freedom of expression in Zambia, including free expression in cyberspace, and we strongly urge the government of Zambia not to set a very bad precedent in light of these developments," said Levi Kabwato, MISA program specialist for media freedom monitoring and research, via an alert.
Zambia is among several countries in Africa, including Malawi, that are drafting laws to regulate and control online communications, including social media networks.