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."
Online journalists and other Internet users in Burundi, Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Morocco and Ethiopia have already faced arrests or criminal prosecutions for posting content online, he said.
The editorial board of the Zambia Reports, which operates in hiding for fear of being arrested, said, "We are deeply concerned about the government's statement with regard to regulation of the online media. Given the government's past conduct, there is significant risk that the new law would violet freedom of expression."
Media organizations should be allowed to use technology to reach people across Zambia, said Viola Morgans, the United Nations Development Program country director for Zambia.
"Much more can be done in promoting the use of technology in Zambia as the country is still strengthening its reach and utility," Morgans said.
If Zambia moves forward with a law to regulate online news media, it will join a growing list of African nations that have taken such measures.
In Gambia, lawmakers last year passed the Information and Communication Act, making some online speech punishable by 15-year jail terms. Illegal online speech includes making "derogatory" statements about government officials and spreading "false news" about government officials.
Cameroon and Angola have passed similar laws with tough criminal penalties and the Malawian government has also drafted laws to regulate and control online communications, including social media networks.