When I was reading the foreword to the book The Struggle for Media Law Reforms in Zambia written by Dr Patrick Matibini, I came across the following observation:
“…many disciplines [in Zambia] rarely accord the mass media much respect as a seriously scholarly endeavour…Even among those who study politics and should be interested in the media’s impact, one finds a very narrow definition of what qualifies as a legitimate media study”.
This book was published in 2006, but these words still reflect our situation 10 years on. Many students and researchers in media and communication will tell you the difficulties they must endure to find sufficient literature to inform their studies, yet the Zambian media scene has some of the most dramatic developments that deserve academic interrogation. Of course, the brighter (lighter?) side to this is that you won’t struggle to find a research topic for your thesis even if you’re strictly required to make an ‘original’ contribution to the study of media and communication in Zambia, because virtually every area of inquiry in the field is virgin. On a serious note, however, there can be no better evidence to show that we aren’t generating sufficient knowledge to inform our academe, policy, programmes or strategies in a field that sits at the centre of the country’s democratic process.
Quite very easily, there are those who will argue that ‘research is there, you just haven’t come across it’. My next question then is ‘why haven’t I come across it?’ Research is never complete if the findings are not effectively communicated to the relevant audience. One purpose of academic research, for instance, is to inform scholarly debate, or even policy debate and decisions. When majority of the people who are participants in media discourse – students, researchers, lecturers, policymakers, among others – aren’t aware of a piece of research in the field, then such literature is as good as not available. Here, this argument is settled.
The next argument might be: ‘… but we don’t have money to invest in research’. Money is not my argument, really. If money – in fact, lack of it – is the problem, and the reason we can’t even sustain an online journal, or have our academic work show up in searches on Google Scholar (or just Google), then maybe we can talk about it later, but this excuse does prove my argument, though, that we don’t have sufficient research on media and communication in Zambia.
And, finally, this argument: ‘but what about you? Aren’t you in media and communication? What are you doing about it?’ Again, this would prove my concerns that we don’t have sufficient research, except it will go farther to show that I’m as much part of the problem as I can be part of the solution. I certainly can, and should, do more than sit here criticising academics and researchers for not doing what I can as well try to do. That too, however, is beside the point.
Try picking a few topical issues in media and communication in Zambia today and see how many have been supported or followed by research (both action and academic, but especially academic). I remember the embarrassment I had to endure for a moment when a colleague from one of the embassies in Lusaka ambuscaded me three years ago, with a question about the number of media outlets in Zambia: ‘well…they’re about…uh…’ was my sheepish reply. And that’s just a question of facts and figures, nothing particularly analytical or conceptual.
Anyhow, are we able to lay our hands on any research analysing, for example, the broadcasting digital migration process (did we even ever migrate?)? This issue still has so much research potential, whether it’s about policy and legal frameworks, resource factors, cost implications, content generation, technology or access issues. What about community radio in Zambia? The last book I read about it was a ‘how to’ kind, written 15 years ago, yet the role played by the community radio sector in our democracy is by no means small, and the challenges they face have direct consequences for democracy and development. I coordinated a study in 2010, which showed us that about 60% of the rural population in Zambia used community radio as their primary source of news. Meanwhile, just look at how the news media landscape is being transformed by social media, especially Facebook: the slander, scandal, photoshopping, ‘likes’, comments, tagging, video streaming and all kinds of things happening on social media are supposed to provoke scholarly curiosity. They are hardly doing so.
What about the so many dramatic events shaping the mainstream media landscape? In 2016, The Post, Zambia’s largest privately-owned newspaper by circulation, got elbowed out of business; Muvi TV, the largest privately-owned television station had its licence suspended, if only for a while. Itezhi-tezhi and Komboni radio stations were temporarily taken off the air by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA). What about events at Radio Mano or Mkushi Radio? There are many areas of inquiry in all this, but when scholars abandon the stage, politicians and other interests from both sides of the argument will ‘analyse’ this stuff for the citizens, and you know they will only be as objective as their interests can allow.
By falling asleep in the library, academics are causing some really serious mess: they are allowing vested interests to define matters that require the arbiter’s voice and a high level of analytical integrity and objectivity. Activists and politicians of all shades of ideology, and spin-doctors from both sides of the political divide, are writing our media history and perspectives, informed by their interests, and the academia is helping to legitimate these voices by remaining reticent.
There will always be critics and supporters of things, and cultural relativists have told us that ‘there’s no absolute truth, only perspectives’; but even with that considered, only a researched view has a chance of retaining some credibility, based on the evidence it presents. Ultimately, the lack of research and its dissemination is a disservice to democracy, because citizens won’t be able to conduct informed debates nor make informed decisions when they are left at the mercy of advocates and propagandists. Scholars inform debates; advocates sway debates.
In the grand scheme of things, there can be more profound and far-reaching consequences when a nation’s researchers doze off. Firstly, as things are at present, the scholarly gap is constantly filled by foreign journals and textbooks. This way, imported perspectives that don’t match our contexts are informing the teaching and learning of media and communication. This is an indictment. Our minds are being stolen, our ideas replaced by foreign ideas and our perspectives pushed to the margins of knowledge.
There has long been concerns by UNESCO and others about the imbalance in the global flow of information and knowledge, which is predominantly in the direction of North to South. With the current indifference in research, we have no chance of reversing the vectors 50 years after the NWICO [New World Information and Communication Order] debate.
Here, I don’t argue against the scholarly value we gain when we learn from, build on, or test theory – wherever it may have come from – but I’m talking about the lack of our own intellectual building materials and architecture to enable us build on these theoretical foundations. We are importing ready-made, finished intellectual buildings, probably constructed with the realities of the monsoon or snow in mind. It doesn’t snow here, does it? So, will that imported building fit the climate of the savanna? We may be producing graduates who understand other ecosystems except their own.
Secondly, by not researching, we are creating thesis opportunities for foreign researchers, who will come to study us with a certain kind of otherness. Much of this research may result in data that are bereft of the insight and context they would have if the research was carried out by a local scholar who knows ‘all the corners of the hood’. And what if we end up with hellbent foreigners, who are out to misrepresent every facet of our social reality to serve certain interests? Researchers can be hired to credit or discredit circumstances, and they can do that with perfect academic fluency. Purely for corporate expediency, the tobacco industry in the USA used ‘reputable’ researchers and journalists to influence scientific debate about the harmful effects of second-hand smoke (so-called ‘passive smoking’), and to discredit the findings of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) which confirmed these harmful effects. With that real-life example, I’m almost free from being accused of cynicism. Even from a non-conspiratorial standpoint, however, the primary definitions of our reality and the terms of debate on local issues are imported from elsewhere when we don’t generate our own knowledge through research. These are definitions and terms that are unlikely to be consistent with local contexts. You can clearly see what we are flirting with when we surrender the intellectual platform. The truth is that knowledge is a site for fierce ideological, political and economic contests. There can be no better argument in favour of research than this.
By Chanda Mfula
The author is a One World Broadcasting (UK) fellow and holds a Master’s Degree in Communication, Media and Public Relations from the University of Leicester.
Areas of expertise, experience and research interest include:
Media development; democratic and development communication; journalism, media and democracy; political communication; communication research and strategy; political economy of media; critical public relations; and critical research.