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Monday, 3 August 2015

Satire, censorship and press freedom

By Andrew Mulenga

Sitting in the front row at a stand-up comedy show and listening to an artiste bluntly chastise and poke fun at a sitting president by mention of name, all in the pretext of satire can be nothing short of an unsettling if not alarming experience for a Zambian.

A cartoon that depicts censorship by
Bruce Mackinnon, Canada was on display at NAF 2015
Under Zambia’s shimmering veneer of 50 years of peace and harmony lies a dense layer of obscured censorship. Political bandwidth does not provide much leverage. Apart from social media and a few phone-in programmes citizens, journalists and artistes alike enjoy very limited freedoms and platforms on which to air their views fairly without getting a heavy knock on the door.

South Africa on the other hand – despite its many problems – seems to be doing something right in terms of freedom of expression and artistic liberties, so much that of late, the country’s biggest creative export appears to be comedians of a satirical nature. Soon, Trevor Noah will be the new host of the top American TV programme The Daily Show and his colleague David Kibuuka will be joining him as one of the writers. Funny man Loyiso Gola co-creator of the satirical news television series Late Nite News with Loyiso Gola on e.TV, has joined the Australian satire The Weekly Show as a correspondent, the comedian and puppeteer Conrad Koch and his rabblerousing puppet Chester Missing – the first puppet to win a court case -- will be attending Just for Laughs, the world's largest international comedy event with fellow comedian Jason Goliath.

Gola and Koch headlined their country’s just ended National Arts Festival 2015 (NAF 2015) in Grahamstown to sell out shows and frenzied crowds that were possessed with an unfulfillable craving for laughter. But even though they make people laugh for a living, these comedians are a ridiculously intelligent lot whose grasp of current affairs and world events can perhaps surpass even the most adept international journalists and seeing them live on stage one can tell that the work is not scripted for them because they continuously ad-lib and improvise depending on the venue and the mood of the crowd.

An excerpt from the South African constitution
concerning the arts and freedom of expression was
placed on the cover of this years National Arts Festival
Their ability to take complex political issues and break them down to morsels of humour is phenomenal. During his show at the 1820 settler’s monument for instance, it was hilarious to hear Koch, a young white South African ridicule the venue as a statue to colonialism, apologize for apartheid and Sarah Baartman, ask when the sitting president Jacob Zuma was “going to pay back the money”, give an ode to Nelson Mandela, liken his own dressing to the rock group the Parlotones and comment on the countrywide load shedding – yes, load shedding is not unique to Zambia – in one hour.

In fact the face of Koch’s puppet, Chester Missing graced the cover of the NAF 2015 programme magazine alongside a likeness of veteran satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys who was credited in the publication as an artiste who “continues to expose the hypocrisies of the fat cats that exploit South Africa’s complex and conflicted democracy” and “His astute satire has exposed the bones of apartheid dinosaurs”. Also taking a place of importance on the cover of the publication was an excerpt from Section 16 of the South African constitution that encompasses the rights of the artist and others stating in part: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes - freedom of the press and other media; freedom to receive or impart information or ideas; freedom of artistic creativity; and academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

Pilato's song Alungu Anabwera recently landed
him in trouble on the charge that it was
likely to cause a breach of peace
Also, among its many art exhibitions this year, NAF 2015, in collaboration with High Commission of Canada presented Freedom of Expression in Broad Strokes which featured award-winning editorial cartoons aimed at encouraging visitors to think about “the complexity of freedom of expression and what it means to them.” The display’s foreword pointed out that: “This exhibition shows how the clever cartoonist often uses humour or a nuanced message to escape the direct attention of the censor”, it also rightfully stated that “editorial cartoonists remain a pillar of a free press”.

Assembled by the Canadian Commission for UNESCO and the Canadian Committee for World Press Freedom, the exhibition, featuring winners of the international cartoon competition since 2001 has been shown around the world and its South African stop over featured internationally acclaimed South African cartoonist Joseph Zapiro who is well known for stirring controversy that has often landed him in trouble with the authorities.

NAF 2015 also holds a public lecture series called Think Fest as part of its main events and speaking in a session entitled Satire and Parody: The Legal Protections and Restrictions prominent South African media lawyer Dario Milo told a packed auditorium at Rhodes University, one of the festival venues, that although South African artistes are protected constitutionally, there still are loopholes for intimidation, he cited an example where award-winning cartoonist Jonathan Zapiro was sued by Zuma for R 5 Million (approx. K3 Million) for the “Justice rape cartoon” that was published in the Sunday Times. He indicated that Zuma had used a tactic of suing and “letting it lie” without prosecuting the claim in the courts. A strategy Milo said was meant to let the matter “hang over the media and intimidate” Milo however indicated that Zuma may have been afraid of facing the Sunday Times lawyer. After Zuma abandoned the case and paid legal costs he also withdrew 14 other defamation cases he had against the media, making it a victory for press freedom. Milo also guaranteed the audience, many of whom were artistes that the freedom of creative expression that artistes enjoyed in South Africa was not possible in many other countries particularly across the continent.

Like many South African satirists, Conrad Koch does not spare
sitting president Jacob Zuma. He is pictured here on stage at the
just ended National Arts festival in South Africa -
Photo CuePix-Tamani Chithambo
His words could never have rang so true because as he spoke, a couple of borders away in Zambia, recording artiste Pilato – Chama Fumba – had a court case concerning a song that allegedly defamed the sitting president, Edgar Lungu entitled “Alungu Anabwela”.  On 13 July Pilato was however set free after the state dropped the case in which he was charged with the offence of conduct likely to cause a breach of peace. The lyrical content apparently parodied the Head of State as a rags-to-riches drunk who had forgotten how he got to where he is. Pilato is not new to political satire, last year his song “One Day Naba Kateka” which loosely translates “One Day With the president (leader)”, also created a stir, it was released when the late Michael Sata was sitting president, and in the song, the artiste imagines all the questions he would as the president if the two were to meet. Most of the questions were centred on a perceived neglect of the electorate and general public after the 2011 elections.

Prior to his acquittal, Pilato may have been described as a local artiste, but the Copperbelt-based performer was immediately propelled into international stardom not because his local language song was an international hit, but because the intimidation and infringement of his artistic rights – if at all he has any – made worldwide headlines. All of a sudden he began receiving calls for appearances and discussions including people as important as the United States ambassador to Zambia Eric Schultz who invited him for a one-on-one to discuss the importance of human rights and freedom of expression. So all eyes were on the case and no doubt this is what prompted the state to just drop it, avoid embarrassment and save the courts from a waste of time.

Your daily newspaper is an easy target, a cartoon
by Habib Haddad, France shown at the NAF 2015
Clearly, unlike their South African counterparts, Zambian artistes do not really have anything to protect them constitutionally. The pending draft “Arts, Culture and Heritage Commission Bill” may suggest a line or two that will look into the plight of creative freedoms but as things stand, entertainers can engage in political satire at their own risk. This is why Zambian comedians, singers, actors and painters have assumed an aura of cowardice in their work, and rightfully so, is martyrdom really worth it? The prospect of jail is very real and nobody surely wants to go there, certainly not Zambian jails, like those in many other African countries they are remnants of colonialism and have never been improved on or expanded, so they are overcrowded and the probabilities of disease and sexual violation too are not a joke if the stories from ex-convicts are anything to go by. So there can really be no blame for Zambia’s creative community for shying away from their duty to artistically criticize government’s shortcomings on behalf of the general citizenry.

Of course there have been some vocal artistes but they are just a handful, notable ones are late PK Chishala, his song Common Man that bemoaned the rising cost of living was banned from Radio in the 1980s, in the 1990s 2wices Tomato Balunda (Tomato prices are up) received the same treatment, in the 2000s a young duo called Impi -- Jordan Sinkala Kedrick Kafula -- released corruption-bashing hits Bantalamisoka and Ba Sakalanyonga that beckoned leaders to stop thieving. In one incidence the duo narrowly escaped with their lives when attacked by members of a political party, top Zambian dancehall artiste Petersen Zagaze – real name Mukubesa Mundia – is also known for prodding politicians with eye-opening lyrics although his strong messages are often lost in his creativity and people end up dancing instead of listening to the sense that he is voicing. When it comes to the comedians, well they appear to have found a comfort zone in satirizing low hanging fruit like prostitution. As for the visual artists, only cartoonists such as this newspaper’s resident gagman Choklet Roy Kazembe or the uncompromisingly direct Kiss Brian Abrahams have managed to stand their satirical ground politically, and sitting presidents have never been spared.

As for press freedom, for fear of intimidation, Zambian journalists, just like the artistes have been reduced to the point of mediocrity, except for them, the prospect of jail is perhaps greater. In his 20-something-years career in the media, the award-winning editor of this newspaper Fred M’membe has been in and out of jail several times under different governments and it is just last week on Friday that he was released on bail after spending a night in custody. M’membe and reporter Mukosha Funga were granted a K60, 000 bail by a Lusaka Magistrates Court in a case in which they had been charged for a story the paper ran on April 17 which indicated that the Anti-Corruption Commission Director General had written to Lungu informing him that presidential aide Kaizer Zulu was being investigated for a US$ 1 million bribe from a Chinese contractor in order for him to fix an appointment with the President. The state objected the bail application but Magistrate Humphrey Chitalu dismissed this noting it was ill conceived. The case has been adjourned to August, 17 for mention.

Nevertheless, when it comes to being the mouthpiece of the general public, journalists and artistes are cut from the same cloth. Both Zambia’s media, and creative practitioners should therefore find ways in which they can work together and mobilize for the urgent repeal or amendment of very old restrictive laws against freedom of expression, many that are colonial by-products, in order for them to go about their duties with less restrain. Of course they do not live in a vacuum and a few may tend to align themselves to certain agendas on behalf of politicians, but surely, there should be a few good professionals out there that are equal to the challenge, picket parliament, sing songs write stories, help make a change. 

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