LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — A NEW spirit of assertiveness and independence in the Zambian media is playing a central role in this country's transition to independence."The stranglehold of the government media has been broken," Fred M'Membe, managing director of the gutsy independent, the Weekly Post, told the Monitor. The Post, which operates from a house on the outskirts of Lusaka, has a circulation of about 40,000 after only four months of publishing. The state-owned newspapers have circulations of between 45,000 and 65,000. "Although a product of the pro-democracy movement, institutions like the Weekly Post will play a vital role in consolidating the country's new democracy," a Western diplomat says. Such newspapers helped pave the way for the free and fair ballot Oct. 31 that swept ex-President Kenneth Kaunda from power. But Mr. M'Membe resists the hero label. "We are a product of democratization. We only gave back what we had been given in the first place." The Weekly Post has few parallels in Africa for the quality of its investigative journalism and its balance. It is modeled on the Weekly Mail of Johannesburg in concept and layout and on the Independent of London in its financing and sense of mission. In the run-up to the vote it carried a series of hard-hitting reports about corruption in state-run corporations. But it has also criticized the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) which won 125 of 150 seats in the national assembly. "The basic issue is democracy," says M'Membe, an intense young man with a strong sense of mission. M'Membe, who counts President Frederick Chiluba as a personal friend, has made it clear to Zambia's newly elected leader that he will be subjected to the same scrutiny as his predecessor. "There is no way that Frederick Chiluba can stop me saying what I think and feel," he says. "If my friends in the MMD want to sack me, I will go." He predicts that members of the former ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP), who are suspected of irregularities, will come to respect the newspaper. "We don't want to see them dehumanized and degraded," M'Membe says. The story of Zambia's media turnaround was crucial in bringing about the peaceful transition to democracy. "The government media totally ignored the MMD until the independent newspapers appeared on the streets," says Daniel Kapaya, editor of the Daily Express. Then the floodgates opened. Readers unleashed nearly three years of frustration in the letter pages and by returning opinion polls in which they could rate presidential candidates as "scandalous and hypocritical." "The completed forms poured in by the thousands," says Mr. Kapaya. "We analyzed them and then published the results to reinforce the new-found right to free expression." Kapaya says Mr. Kaunda used his control of the media to discredit officials who had fallen from favor. "We could now provide a forum for his victims to give their side of the story." The launch of the independents had a dramatic effect on the two government-owned newspapers - the Times of Zambia and the Daily Mirror. For the first time they gave some coverage to the pro-democracy movement. Further impetus was given to the media campaign in late September by the intervention of Z-vote, the international monitoring team led by former United States President Jimmy Carter. The monitors, noting some improvement in the print media, found "favored treatment" was being given to the ruling party in some of the media and urged the public to demand a fair deal. The following week, the Press Association of Zambia (PAZA) won an unprecedented injunction in the High Court to suspend broadcasting chief St ephen Moyo and Times Managing Editor Bwendo Mulengela because their coverage was biased in favor of the UNIP. This was a turning point. "Carter's intervention had a tremendous effect in getting the government media to be more fair," Kapaya says. "It provided the inspiration for PAZA's court application." On Saturday, the nation waited for Chiluba's swearing-in to be televised live. But the screens were blank. There was a national outcry. Even the government-owned Sunday Times of Zambia reported the nation's outrage. That day's television news explained at length that the failure to broadcast, despite the presence of television cameras at the ceremony, was due to technical difficulties and the short notice.