Zambia: ‘Shutting down journalists is shutting us down’ says Zambian farmer (by Brian Moonga, for Farm Radio Weekly in Zambia)

| February 20, 2012

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From weather forecasts, to news on how agricultural inputs are distributed, or how farmer co-operatives are created, radio has helped many of Zambia’s small-scale farming communities achieve success.

Irvine Milandu farms in Moonze, an agricultural district in Southern Zambia. He listens to radio throughout the day, especially when he is working in the fields. He appreciates the amount of information he hears on farming and governance issues. He says, “It’s easy for me, especially with the new technology of cell phones which have radio. I just work and listen.”

There are more than 20 community radio stations in Zambia. Most have a coverage radius of less than 20 kilometres. Yet they are significant to both rural and urban dwellers, whose interests range from politics to agriculture.

Radio is not only a source of entertainment and information for Mr. Milandu, it is also a unifying influence on his family. He explains, “With my small radio set, on some evenings we listen to some of our favourite radio dramas. It’s very nice because my children learn to express themselves and appreciate some of our heritage, our values, and discover more and more who we are as a people.”

But radio has had its greatest impact on Mr. Milandu’s maize farming. Many Zambian farmers used to depend on their own observations to predict rainfall and other weather events. But many struggled when the rains did not arrive as expected.

Farmers like Mr. Milandu find weather forecasts helpful. He says, “Last farming season, I planted my maize too early because many of us here in Moonze thought the rains would come on time. But there was a long dry spell.” He says the weather this year has been similar, adding, “There is no rain. [But] luckily this time I learnt that this part of the country would experience rainfall much later.”

Milandu’s favourite channel is his local radio station Sky FM, which runs political debates and a special farmers program, Mulaso WaBalimi, which discusses agricultural techniques.

New technologies such as cell phones with built-in radio sets have helped many farmers stay tuned despite erratic electricity supplies. Mr. Milandu says, “Once my cell phone battery is fully charged, I can listen to radio, [and] send SMS for two or three days. Like this, I am fully tuned into developments taking place in- and outside the country.”

But Zambia’s progress towards meeting this new demand for information is meeting some obstacles. The country recently dropped four places on the Reporters Without Borders index of press freedom.

Gagging of journalists, censorship and political interference have all negatively affected the quality of service delivery to Zambia’s listening audience.

Mr. Milandu comments, “It’s us the people who want to speak out and the journalists just convey our thoughts and aspirations. So shutting down journalists is shutting us down.”

However, many journalists are happy with new government media reforms which include enactment of a freedom of information bill, and enable local media organizations to go national.

Hector Simfukwe is a reporter with Joy FM in the capital city, Lusaka. He says, “The new government which closely worked with journalists during the elections is showing very progressive tendencies towards media development in Zambia. This is different from the previous regime which really gagged the media, especially towards the general elections of 2011.”