- Zambia's at times cavalier media may be forced to tread more cautiously in covering the run-up to this year's general elections.
Under a new electoral act they will not be able to publish speculative analysis, unsourced opinion polls or predict the result before the official announcement, unless they are willing to risk a five-year jail sentence or US$2,500 fine.
"All public and private media personnel shall not broadcast their own political opinion, commentary or assessment," reads one clause of the new act passed early this year. The law also compels the media to identify the source of any published opinion poll, and the margin of error.
Isabel Chimangeni, president of the Zambia Union of Journalists, said the legislation could put reporters behind bars for simple errors. "The media in Zambia favours a non-statutory code of conduct. However, from what we see in the new electoral act, and from our layman's point of view, there is an imposition on the media of what looks like a statutory code of conduct," she told IRIN.
Kellies Kaunda, chair of the Zambian chapter of the watchdog Media Institute of Southern Africa, was more forthright: "Are they trying to say we should remain silent while they are counting [the votes] until they finish? We can't afford that because journalism is history in a hurry."
But Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) chairperson Irene Mambilima insisted the provisions of the new act were in the interest of promoting free and fair elections, and the media would be expected to comply.
"This is a new law and therefore let's all give it a bit of time to see how it works, because it is not automatic that every erring journalist will be sent to jail. We have to prove that the commission of the offence was [in bad faith]," she said.
Zambia's opposition parties have routinely complained of unfair coverage, especially by the public media. In the 2001 general election, the state-owned daily Times of Zambia published a separate edition of the paper in the north of the country naming the winner, even though the region was still voting.
On the same day, the government-controlled Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation announced that the main opposition leader was ahead by a landslide, but a few hours later reported that current President Levy Mwanawasa had been declared the winner.
In the event, Mwanawasa won by just a percentage point - 28 percent of the vote, against his main rival Anderson Mazoka's 27 percent - in an election widely condemned as flawed by international observers.
Bobby Bwalya, ECZ chairperson during the last election, said the conduct of The Times of Zambia and the national broadcaster could have had an impact on the result, in what was an exceptionally close race.
"The way the two media institutions conducted their business on the day ... could be one possible motivation and justification for the introduction of this new electoral act and the code of conduct," he noted.
Mwanawasa has until 31 December to hold elections and is expected to announce the date in the coming weeks, but some analysts think he may call the ballot early to take advantage of an opposition reeling after the recent death of Mazoka.
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