Free speech 'non-existent' in Zambia, says exiled musician
Freedom of expression has deteriorated under Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu, according to a leading musician who fled the country after receiving death threats. Fumba Chama, who goes by the stage name Pilato, fled Zambia at the start of January following a series of intimidating messages. His song Koswe Mumpoto (Rat in the pot) was seen as critical of the government and resulted in menacing voice and video messages. Rights group Amnesty International described the threats to Pilato’s life as a “brazen” attempt to silence dissenting views. The singer-songwriter has been charged with “disobedience of lawful order” due to his participation in a protest during September in front of the country’s parliament building, according to the country's state broadcaster. Spotlight on Africa spoke to Pilato about his controversial song, the death threats he received and its implications for free speech in Zambia…
What is Koswe Mumpoto (Rat in the pot) about?
The song talks about the rats that have invaded a house, they’re taking advantage of the situation - they’re stealing, they’re even stealing things that they can’t use. It’s about the destruction that the rats are bringing to this house which is under their control.
Q&A: Fumba Chama AKA Pilato
Are you really talking about rats or is this an analogy?
It’s definitely an analogy for leaders that instead of serving the people, end up serving themselves. In Zambia, we have a scenario where we have the bush mice and the rats. The bush mouse is a delicacy, it's a food for a certain tribe in the Eastern Province. In the song, I’m saying we asked for bush mice so that we could eat them, but instead you gave us a rat. Now this rat is eating what we’re supposed to be eating - this rat is stealing things that it can’t even use. It’s destroying things that we treasure the most, so it’s an analogy of a leadership that instead of serving, is self-serving.
You’re talking about the government, the ruling Patriotic Front party, President Edgar Lungu?
Not exactly just that kind of leadership. I’m talking about the government obviously, I’m talking about church leadership, I’m talking about local government – it’s not targeted at one group of leaders. Instead of serving the people, these leaders are serving themselves.
You’re talking about authority figures, the ruling elite – does this also include the opposition?
All the leaders, everybody in leadership who does what’s not expected of them. Leadership, by design, is supposed to save the people. It doesn’t matter which platform - if they’re not serving the people, they’re serving themselves, they are basically rats in the pot.
What was the response to the song?
It’s been great – people are dancing, I’m excited. It’s only disturbing that a certain group of people decided to attack me, threaten me with death. It’s a little bit off, I didn’t expect that humans would resort to such thinking.
What threats did you receive?
I had threats from people who are connected to the government – these are youth organs, cadres. These cadres are like militias responsible for the brutality that happens politically in Zambia. They attack people, even at police stations, even at graveyards. These people have been responsible for a lot of criminality - beating and killing people. They sent me voice messages, they sent me a video clip warning me and telling me what they’re going to do to me. This has not attracted any response from the police, the police have not stepped in. It’s these threats that pushed me to leave the country because I don’t feel safe anymore. These people are powerful enough to even attack you at the police station itself.
Did you go to the police, the authorities to make a complaint about this?
Our institutions have broken down such that you can’t trust the police officers. The police officers are weak, powerless at the moment. The people that have power are these cadres who are literally militias. These guys are capable of attacking you at the police station – this has happened, the police have no power over them, me going to the police is just surrendering myself to them. Even going to the courts, I’ve got voice messages of them telling me that even if I go to the courts they’ll come and snatch and kill me from there. Even if I were to go to any embassy in Zambia, they’re saying they can actually get me and attack me. I would have loved to have gone to the police, but police don’t have power over these people.
It must have been scary to receive those threats?
Very scary, especially if you are an individual like me. We have political parties who have faced this brutality, but they are groups – they have various channels, security apparatus in their own setup. I’m just an individual who doesn’t even have a gun. So it’s very scary, very dangerous.
Radio stations and television channels have been ordered to stop playing your song. Does the song itself actually break the Zambian broadcast code, as far as you know? For example, using profanities or inciting people in some way.
It doesn't, it's a pure song, it's a song that doesn’t even get anywhere close to criminality. But I must also mention that this didn’t just start with this song. I’ve been a musician for the past eight years. I only enjoyed radio time in my first three or four years. I had DJs calling me, telling me how their bosses were ordered not to play anything by Pilato – even just a social commentary song or any other neutral song. They’ve been told not to have anything to do with me. Private or public media institutions - I’ve got no space there, my name is like a crime. My music is like a crime regardless of what it’s about.
What do you think about the state of free speech in Zambia?
It’s non-existent, considering that even social media is being clamped down upon. We have reports of people that have been arrested and jailed for just sharing their opinions on Facebook. I don’t think we enjoy the freedom of expression, the freedom of speech as we should do.
Do you think this has worsened under President Lungu?
It has worsened. I’ve been in this space for some time, so any slight change affects me to a great extent. During [former President Levy] Mwanawasa’s time, I had no idea I could even go to jail for a song or face threats for a song. I did music under Mwanawasa and there was nothing like that. During [former President Michael] Sata’s time, I did music and although I had little scares, little threats from distant cadres, I never went to jail. Under President Edgar Lungu, I’ve been arrested two times for expressing myself. One time was because I did a song – I was arrested. The other time was because I protested the misuse of public funds. The government had bought second-hand fire trucks for one million dollars each. Me and my friends protested asking how could the government justify that misuse of funds - we were arrested. This is not something that has happened to anybody in the previous governments. This is worse, this is a new height of abuse of power and abuse of people’s freedoms.
Have you asked yourself whether it’s worth continuing being critical of those in power?
I do question myself every time I feel lonely – I ask myself is this necessary, is this worth it? I think it's a deserving fight. It’s necessary because if we don’t do it now, it may be too late tomorrow. If I was to be self-centred - to say, ‘I’m not the only one who’s seeing these things, maybe just let me be like any other person’ – tomorrow it might be deadly for me, or family members or friends. And it may be too late to challenge it, so I feel this is necessary now – if it can be stopped, it has to be stopped. We can’t wait for it to get worse tomorrow.
How long will you remain in exile?
Not for too long, I can’t surrender my country to a bunch of thieves.