Africa’s largest TV platform has a growing free speech and censorship problem

Silenced for talking too much?
Silenced for talking too much?
Image: M-Net
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Africa’s largest television platform has pulled a talk show after it asked questions about police brutality and media freedom in Zambia.

Radio and television promos for Talk With Kwangu were pulled off air after they featured a sound bite from the wife of Zambia’s opposition leader, Hakainde Hichilema, the Mast newspaper reported. The show, hosted by journalist Kwangu Liwewe, airs on M-Net’s Zambezi Magic channel in six southern African countries.

In the season two promo, Mutinta Hichilema gave an account of the night her husband was arrested on treason charges earlier this year, as part of a debate on police brutality. In another snippet, Liwewe is seen discussing Zambia’s shrinking media space with a panel of guests.

Liwewe told Quartz on Nov. 14 she was surprised when Monday’s night’s episode on religion and false prophets failed to air but declined to comment on MultiChoice’s decision. M-Net’s website says the next episode is slated to air on Nov. 19. M-Net is easily one of Africa’s largest and most influential broadcast platforms because of the number of countries and homes it reaches. As of March 2016 it has 10.4 million subscribers.

This is not the first time M-Net’s parent company MultiChoice, which is owned by South African media giant Naspers, has succumbed to pressure from African regulators sensitive to criticism from conservative interest groups. Until now, the most of the high profile censored programs have been American reality shows and cartoons.

Last year, MultiChoice stopped broadcasting Caitlyn Jenner’s reality show I Am Cait and the show I am Jazz, which features a transgender teen, after complaints to Nigeria’s broadcasting authority. In June this year, MultiChoice cut a string of cartoons, including Hey Arnold and The Legend of Korra, after Kenya’s film and classification board said the kids’ shows promoted “disturbing content glorifying homosexual behavior.”

But media censorship in Zambia is particularly sensitive issue at this time in the country’s history. The southern Africa country has for a long time been one of the continent’s most stable democracies but in the last year has come under the spotlight for what critics say is president Edgar Lungu’s increasingly authoritarian tactics.

Criticism over Talk with Kwangu’s marketing material started with a letter to the Daily Nation, a newspaper with leanings to the Patriotic Front. The writer, known only as “Disgusted Viewer,” complained that the promo was “opposition propaganda” and demanded that MultiChoice run an apology or risk souring their relationship with government. In Zambia, MultiChoice operates in partnership with the public broadcaster, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation.

“M-Net commissions variety a number of producers across Africa to produce programming for its entertainment channels, however not all of the programming goes on air,” the television company said in an emailed statement to Quartz on Nov. 14. They declined to comment on perceptions that the multinational is being bullied by African governments and conservative interest groups.