By Gershom Ndhlovu
Vice-President George Kunda recently warned, through parliament, that civil servants who allegedly leak confidential government information would not be protected.
“It is unfortunate,” said Kunda, “that these same whistle blowers only leak information that people want to hear and they suppress the explanation. These types of whistle-blowers will not be protected.”
Having had worked in the civil service in my early years of post-graduation from the University of Zambia, I learnt, sooner rather than later, that in the civil service, any document, even a humorous doodled note passing between two officers, could simply be classified with the “confidential”, “secret” or “top secret” stamps that were readily available to any officer of my rank at the time.
If any officer wanted, he or she could classify toilet tissue with a mere stamp and from a scenario as obtains in government now, any document in government offices could be classified particularly using the maxim common in intelligence circles—“the need to know” principle. Those who have no need to know about certain things would be kept in the dark, more so the public.
As such, documents with alleged criminal intent such as the nation has recently been treated to through the private media such as the controversial valuation of Zamtel by RP Capital, the procurement of radars for National Airports Corporation both of which are now subject of a tribunal, and the importation of GMO maize and instructions by a top MMD official to a permanent secretary at the home affairs home affairs ministry to pay suppliers of some doubtful services to government, can simply be classified and put away from the prying public eye while unscrupulous figures fatten their bank accounts with taxpayers funds.
Those who, out of patriotism, take it upon themselves to expose these nefarious activities, risk going to jail for 25 years under the Official Secrets Act and other legal gibberish especially if they signed what then, if at all it has changed, was Form CS1, the very first document a civil servant signed upon employment.
It would appear as if the MMD has found a loophole, and certainly a nadir, in the civil service by appointing cut-and-dried party cadres as district commissioners, deputy permanent secretaries, permanent secretaries and diplomats, all who are controlling officers in their own right who can do their party’s bidding in terms of channeling public funds to the party.
How else have these officers been surviving the chop—even jail—when year in and year out, their ministries, departments, districts and diplomatic missions have been exposed by the Auditor General for abuse of public funds? Some permanent secretaries even have had difficulties explaining their financial operations before the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee and they have walked out unscathed, laughing and personally wealthier.
Is it any wonder then that the MMD government has been dragging its feet in the enactment of the Freedom of Information Bill which has procrastinated for close to a decade now through which the media and the public could be at liberty to ask public bodies for release of any information in their custody, for public or private consumption?
If and when this law is passed, only Cabinet Minutes and matters of genuine defence and security would be protected from disclosure and there would be no illegality for obtaining and passing information under the ambit of the Freedom of Information law.
The absence of the Freedom of Information Act demands for innovation among journalists to dig information in what has universally come to be known as investigative journalism, a genre of journalism which came to be associated with two journalists, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who forced the resignation of US president Richard Nixon over the Watergate Scandal in 1974.
In Zambia, the only newspaper that practices a semblance of investigative journalism is the Post whose exposes led to the indictment of the country’s second republican president Frederick Chiluba over allegations dubbed the plunder of national resources which has had the domino effect of court appearances and jailing of former and serving senior government and military officials for corruption-related cases.
As reggae maestro Bob Marley sang in one of his songs “you never miss the water until the well runs dry,” most Zambians miss the country’s third republican president, the late Levy Mwanawasa who made it possible to bring to book some of the most powerful people in the country who plundered with impunity the national treasury between 1991 and 2001 and beyond. Whether the subsequent leaders will tread that path in fighting the scourge is a matter of doubt considering the way things are going in the country. They themselves may tread the path to the courts of law once they are no longer in power.
Reading between the lines of what President Rupiah Banda said recently that there was no corruption in his government because donors in the country have not mentioned it, one sees that the man will only acknowledge the problem if external voices say so.
From Banda’s point view, it is either he is being economical with the truth or the donors themselves are complicit in the corruption cancer eating away at the very core of our country’s socio-economic fabric.
Readers will recall the knee-jerk reaction of government officials in the last 18 years who always brings up the argument that foreign diplomats are not supposed to meddle in the affairs of the country they are accredited to.
We are lectured about how these diplomats are supposed to use so-called diplomatic channels to voice concern about ills going on in a country of their service.
"It is perilous to assume we are unintelligent. We are not going to accept the insidious wiles of foreign influence. We might be a poor country. We may have made mistakes, but we are a free and sovereign nation entitled to our opinions and our own domestic policies. We will do what is in our interest and not that of another nation or a multinational company,” a former minister was quoted reacting to former French ambassador to