Young, talented and courageous, the Editor in Chief of The Mast, Zambia’s leading newspaper, Joan Chirwa, speaks in this interview with PREMIUM TIMES’ Evelyn Okakwu on the struggle for press freedom in Zambia as well her journey into the media industry in a country where intimidation of the press is fast becoming the order of the day.
PREMIUM TIMES: How long have you been a journalist?
Ms Chirwa: I have been in journalism for 14 years. I started with the radio, in 2004 when I finished school. I completed my study in 2003. Then in 2004, I worked for a radio station. It was a regional radio station somewhere away from the city. I only worked there for a year and decided to quit because I was feeling like it was not something that was quite challenging.
I was feeling like I really needed something that will be quite challenging for me. I looked at print as something that could give me the opportunities I was looking out for: a chance to stretch my capabilities. That was when I joined The Post, which was the country’s biggest independent and privately owned newspaper. That was 2005.
But I did not start as a full time journalist. I was a correspondent and not based in the city. I moved from Charta where I was working for a radio station and went to the other side of the country which was the southern province that was in Livingstone. Livingstone is a tourist capital. I decided to go and correspond from there, because I noticed that there was a lapse.
There was quite a lot that was happening in Livingstone. I had never been there. But just by reading and hearing what was happening I felt that there was a gap that needed to be filled. And correspondence was the gateway for me, which actually worked out.
I went to Livingstone in 2005 in January. Few months after I got there the newspaper decided to stop sending reporters from the capital to cover whenever there was a big story going on there because they had me. So they developed that kind of trust and confidence that I was capable of handling even the presidential assignments. If the president was coming to Livingstone they would not even send a reporter to cover it because they knew that I was there.
That was what happened to me and I knew that the decision I made to go to print was starting to pay off.
I was there only for a year and at the end of 2005, I was called for a training so that I could get a fulltime job. So in 2006 January I went through the in-house training which The Post used to do then for new fulltime staff. After that I was given a fulltime job. So I started working for the post in 2006 until it was closed in 2016.
PREMIUM TIMES: Can you narrate the incident that resulted in the shutdown of The Post?
Ms Chirwa: The Post was shut down by the government, using the Zambia Revenue Authority, on June 21 on the pretext that the newspaper was owing about $5.3 million in unpaid taxes. But this was an inflated figure. The Post had never denied owing any taxes; it did. But the amount was much less than what the revenue body was claiming.
All efforts that we made to reconcile the figures didn’t yield any result. Two court orders for that newspaper’s reopening were obtained but the state police that were deployed to man the head office and the printing press refused to obey the orders.
What was the experience of losing The Post like to you and your colleagues?
Ms Chirwa: It was and will remain an extremely emotional moment for every employee. For most of us, we had lost our only source of income. Our dreams were shattered, incomes cut off. In an economy with a job crunch, there was completely no hope for a better tomorrow. And on the media front, independent journalism had been murdered.
It’s now two years since the newspaper’s closure but many of us still feel the anger we felt when the newspaper was closed. Although many of us regrouped to form The Mast, we still feel the pain of losing The Post
PREMIUM TIMES: Tell us about your experience as a journalist in Zambia.
Ms Chirwa: It’s quite challenging like in every other place. The biggest issue we face is access to information. You really have to work extra to get information. This does not just include information that only the government will want to hide. Even just public information. Things the residents would want to hear about or be interested in. Information is not readily there or available.
So we have been pushing for the access to information law. The piece of legislation is not intended to benefit only the journalists. It’s going to benefit the general public. If they need certain information they can easily walk into the government institutions, whatever departments and say they are looking for this information and they (the government institutions) will give it to them.
The other challenge is freedom for the press. We have a lot of intimidation going on for individual journalists. Some targeted at the whole Institution like what happened to The Post. That was institutional based. They just made sure that there wasn’t any freedom at all; and what did they do? They decided to close the whole institution. That is the biggest problem that we are facing right now. It’s not new because one of the Presidents that was there before, actually had tried to close down The Post, but he failed.
But what they did was to make the environment extremely difficult for them. So there was a lot of arrests of journalists, a lot of harassments, telling people to stop advertising. So that you will feel there is nothing more, that you can do, but to play the card like everybody else is doing; become the propaganda tool of government. So that really affects a lot of journalists at that level who feel that this is not just worth it. That they can’t go on. And you will see most them even getting out and preferring to go the public relations way.
Unfortunately, what is happening now is that; if you are ready to move on and keep fighting for press freedom, there is also self-censorship coming up. The state is trying to censor you and you also find a journalist censoring themselves. It’s a serious problem for journalists. People won’t report certain things because they are censoring themselves because they know that once they get certain things and report them, there is going to be some repercussions.
And as an editor that is a very difficult thing. As an editor, you have to also know what is going on. When a reporter knows about something and doesn’t want to report it, you as an editor has to know about it and also report it.
PREMIUM TIMES: How have you been managing to survive?
Ms Chirwa: It’s a lot of sacrifices. In trying to keep the team together, there were moments where I personally would at times use my own resources to help out. We have developed a team where we could actually just call it a family. So that’s what we have now. You’ll just put yourself in that person’s situation and let their problem be your problem so that nobody will feel neglected.
Some have left but have continued the fight using different levels. We still know that we are together. They may not be directly working for this newspaper or directly doing journalism work, but they are still championing free press through some other levels.
It’s quite a challenge. Though slowly, but we have been trying to manage whatever little is coming and sharing it amongst ourselves to make sure that there is nobody who is going hungry; nobody who is being sent out of the house because they couldn’t pay rent. If at all it gets to the stage where somebody is being threatened and they have to leave the house, there is always a kind of intervention measure coming. That’s how we keep pushing to survive, but to be honest, it’s a big challenge. For those who have said they would like to stay, we would say they are really courageous.
PREMIUM TIMES: What extra measures have you taken to ensure the protection of your rights as journalists?
We are in close collaboration with international organisations like the Centre for the Protection of Journalists, and Amnesty international was in Zambia some months ago to look at quite a number of difficulties and issues that media organisations are undergoing with regards to intimidation from government.
The other organisation that is really there is the International Press Institute, (IPI) and they are very proactive, so whenever there is an issue they really come in with statements to ensure we have a stronger voice.
PREMIUM TIMES: Have you thought of working probably from outside Zambia, to reduce the risk of arrests?
Ms Chirwa: No, we have not thought of that because it’s quite an expensive venture, you need to put a number of things in place. Right now, we don’t have that kind of resources that would make a few people working there to be stationed somewhere out of the country but I think we are managing with whatever little that is there to ensure good journalism.
This way we inspire that zeal in some of us that good journalism is still possible, despite the environment been rough and not friendly and operating under a very depressive regime that does not want any independent press to be in existence.
PREMIUM TIMES: What are those qualities that you would consider as putting The Post in the spotlight among other papers, before it was scrapped?
Ms Chirwa: Its independence, telling the story as it is, whenever something happens, we won’t keep quiet about it, we try our best to go out there, get the story and tell it just as it is without any twisting of facts; without trying to make it look like something that is small whereas it is a big thing. Of course we ensure to get the facts right, to try as much as possible to maintain that credibility of the newspaper, so that the people out there consider the paper as a reliable part of the media.
PREMIUM TIMES: What future do you see for the media in Zambia?
Ms Chirwa: I see a real threat right now. I’m really scared because we are talking about having election in the next three years, that is 2021 and the current environment is like people are already in a campaign mood and are trying as much as possible to formulate their propaganda and use it in whichever media institution that is available to be a channel for that kind of propaganda.
We are headed for a future that is actually that is not so bright. It will require a lot of effort and sacrifice, so that those who have been fighting for the freedom of the press don’t think of giving up. In fact, this is not the time for anybody to be thinking about giving up, because the moment some give up, the hope of fighting will be completely lost for many others among us.
PREMIUM TIMES: What has it been like as the editor of such a medium?
Ms Chirwa: I must say it’s been very challenging. Like I can authoratively say right now that I don’t have a life of my own. As an editor, a lot of people look up to you. A lot is expected of me, and I also understand that I have to set a good example for those looking up to me. However I treat work hours, they will do the same. So for me at times it’s difficult, I don’t go visiting friends, even attending parties, sometimes I don’t even have time for certain discussions. If there is a wedding, for example of a close friend and a very important story is to be done and I decide to go for the wedding, the reporters will do the same. So I have to sacrifice that. But I have already made a schedule that at least two times in a month, it’s a day out with my family. Very important.
PREMIUM TIMES: How does your husband react to some of the challenges that come with the profession?
Ms Chirwa: I’m glad he understands that nature of my job so he doesn’t get angry when I, for instance, need to work late or I need to leave the house late at night to attend to a pressing matter at work. But it hasn’t been all rosy – at times he will express some reservations about it; he’s only human.
PREMIUM TIMES: What advice do you have for other journalists in Zambia and other parts of Africa and the world where press freedom is a major challenge?
When somebody decides to be a journalist, they have to be ready for a lot of things. It’s an exciting career you know, you meet a lot of people and you go places that you can never imagine you would get to. It is very interesting. It’s exciting. Journalism is quite an interesting career
People do not realise that as a journalist, you are like an artiste, people that sing and dance. It also comes with a lot of responsibilities. You have to make sure that all that may come because of the status that you earn does not get so much to you. That is the good side of journalism.
There is the other side, I would not call that the bad side but the side that comes with a lot of challenges. If you are operating in an environment that is very hostile, you have to be ready to take on whatever comes, if situations come, you have to know how to handle them. You have to know how to keep telling the story even if the situation does not allow. Even if they try to come up with things to intimidate you, you have to maintain your ground and at the end of the day, there is something you are fighting for.