Even as a child, I knew Zambia was a media dictatorship. No one dared say too much that criticised the government; and anyway, where did we get our daily news? Two sources — a nationalised newspaper, and a nationalised television station, both of which were (and apparently continue to be) government mouthpieces. The ZNBC news at 7pm and 9pm dutifully rattled off the schedule of meetings that party members attended, panning the bored audience of attending ministers (some soundly sleeping) as Kaunda or some other dignitary expounded on the merits of the One-Party Participatory Democracy. Sneaking in a shot of a sleeping party member during a 3-hour speech was as revolutionary as things were going to get.

Sean Jacobs, Marissa Moorman and I will be part of a roundtable on “Politics and Popular Culture” at the upcoming African Studies Association in Philadelphia on November 29. I’m sure Zambia will come up, and that someone will make a reference to James Ferguson’s work on Internet culture in late 1990s Zambia.

Like everywhere else, I often fear that not much has changed for Zambia’s media: we have more mobile phones, but not people who have access to much political information, nor the means of participation, except the occasional strike to protest mine conditions. The vast majority of Zambians do not have access to Internet sources, and have to rely on the television station, ZNBC, and the newspapers Times of Zambia and Daily Mail — each of which seems to compete for uniformity and blandness in reportage prizes. 

However, for a small number of people, perhaps an elite group that includes those Zambians who live abroad, the well-connected, and those in the tiny segment of the Zambian upper-middle class, Zambia Watchdog (ZWD) has provided a steady stream of criticism. People tend to make jokes about the relevance of ZWD, but it’s not only addictive because of its constant updates, but reassuring because it asserts its rightful place outside the monolith of official control. And apparently, like the U.S. teen-drama Gossip Girl, it has friends and informants in high, low, and all places, who seem to vie for the right to feed the site with insider’s insights and the latest shock-story.

We’ve grown to love serious reportage coupled with compromising photographs and cheeky headlines, such as “Kambwili grabs Roan golf club, turns it into grazing field for his cows,” replete with a stock image of the enormously pot-bellied Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili, and a story supplied by ‘concerned citizens’ detailing how he appropriated the Luanshya-based Roan Antelope club to feed his crew of cows and goats. And check out this recent piece covering a possible “a serious electoral showdown in Solwezi should [the] party go ahead with its latest plans to hound out those serving in the current government” (boring!) with an image of this big-talker, Solwezi East MMD member of parliament Richard Taima gyrating his crotch against the seemingly willing behind of a half-clothed woman in an apparent public dance-off (there’s a band playing in the background, while another party member, ‘Playboy’ Stephen Masumba, throws some display-dance moves to the woman’s front). Obviously, we all clicked on the image [above] and were treated to a story about how minor political rivalries are playing out in the far corners of the country.

Recently, however, it seems that ZWD had made gains in influence — perhaps there’s more access to the Internet, bringing with it a larger readership. The site has become the target of a threat of denial of service (DDoS) — allegedly by the government — and the Zambian Registrar of Societies, Clement Andeleki, had given ZWD 48 hours to provide a physical address or face de-registration. The Zambian government doesn’t just resort to empty harassment; it takes censorship seriously, using K5 billion or US$1 million to send police and security staff abroad to learn to hack websites. In April this year, ZWD listed several further measures taken by the government to crackdown on Internet users in Zambia.

However, despite the general taboo hanging over ZWD’s site, those proclaiming love and loyalty to motherland and party also seem to check the site as obsessively as the rest of us. During a Lusaka Council meeting in October, Finance Deputy Minister Miles Sampa and Minister in Charge of Chiefs Nkandu Luo were both caught on camera, browsing ZWD. And to add to this hilarity, mirroring plotlines of Gossip Girl (where New York City’s fashionable Upper East Side players frequently check-in to see if they remain relevant while threatening to ‘take-down’ the cruel person behind the Gossip Girl site), Sampa and Luo were spotted (and recorded) browsing ZWD only days after the site was threatened with de-registration. Perhaps they were gathering evidence for the government’s case against critical media.

We contacted ZWD via the email address they provide; the editors wrote back promptly: “We are humbled to note that we provide a platform where frustrated Zambians are able to vent their anger online. We feel it’s better than using pangas and machetes.” (Email, by the way, is the only way to contact ZWD editors, seeing as they have “to protect [them]selves and [their] work from people who have been trying to destroy what [they] do and harm [them]. These include drug dealers and their lawyers, political mercenaries, corrupt public officials and some journalists.”)

Note to Michael Sata and his hounds: controlling the media may have worked for Kaunda, and even for his recent successors. But really, man, it’s not going to work for something as popular and entertaining as ZWD, especially in a country with no other expressive outlets for critiques of power and public irony. Like Chinese Internet users, people will find a way. Or they might take up pangas and machetes.

One commentor, having read the report on Sampa and Luo’s browsing habits, noted not only the uselessness of the official papers (people grab a ‘borrowed’ copy to check out the daily cartoon, or to see what the adverts are offering), but also the relevance of ZWD:

“In case you are under rating the substance and existance of the watchdog. Some of us we start with the watchdog then proceed to the office read a borrowed post newspaper just to check chocklet’s catoon. I may buy the daily mail [goverment owned daily paper] for adverts. But I don’t forget to re-check the watchdog just incase of any breaking news. Even before going to bed, I check the breaking news. Keep it up ZWD.”