By Peter Sinkamba
On Monday, March 4, 2019, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) suspended the broadcasting licence for Prime TV. According to the IBA press statement, the TV licence for the station was suspended for 30 days for ‘exhibiting unprofessional elements in its broadcasting through unbalanced coverage, opinionated news, material likely to incite violence and use of derogatory language.’
In the meantime, in November and December 2018, the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court delivered two landmark judgments concerning unbalanced coverage, opinionated news and use of derogatory language towards the court. The Supreme Court went to great lengths to elaborate contempt rules and liability of persons concerning opinionated news on matters before court; use of derogatory language against the court; and making serious allegations against the court.
The IBA decision has reignited public debate the subject matter. There is no doubt that the welfare or good order in the country is likely to suffer prejudice if such vices remain unregulated. The Supreme Court elaborated on this in detail.
As the Green Party, we support the view that both private and public media needs to be cleansed of unbalanced coverage, opinionated news, material likely to incite violence, and use of derogatory language. Whilst the judiciary has in-built mechanisms to deal with perpetrators, we support the view that a fair and just system needs to be put in place to curb the vice among private and public media institutions alike.
The first point of engagement on this issue, as Green Party concerns the existing regulatory framework for the media in the nation. We think that the IBA Act, which is the principal regulatory framework on the subject matter, is biased against private media. In this regard, we think that there is need to repeal the IBA Act for the simple reason that it is discriminatory and therefore unconstitutional. An unconstitutional law is illegal. Both private and public media must be subjected to the same relevant rules on unbalanced coverage, opinionated news, material likely to incite violence, and use of derogatory language. Crucially, both private and public media must be regulated by the same standard, and the same body. At the moment IBA regulates private media content. No statutory body regulates public media content. In our view, such a discriminatory and obnoxious standard needs to be immediately addressed.
The second point is that bulk of the rules and regulation of the media must be contained in the election, referenda and political parties’ legislation. While election legislation at the moment may not specifically target the media, many rules of general application are nonetheless applicable to the media, including online media. However, several reports concerning post-2016 by-elections reveal the mess that arises when media is not supervised by regulators and commissions, including press associations, election commission, polling commissions (conflict resolution committees) and data protection commissions. This point justifies our call for abolishment of the IBA Act and in its place entrench rules, regulations, and institutional frameworks within election, referenda and political parties’ legislation to curb the vice.
Furthermore, while the outcome of ad hoc rules which were applicable to broadcast and other media during 2016 elections was quite considerable, there is need for reform. Instead of relying on ad hoc rules, there is need for reform from ad hoc to enduring regulation. Two good examples are the discretion of ZNBC and Prime TV concerning the allocation of airtime for political parties, and the allocation of party-political broadcasts after the 2016 elections. One lesson learnt is that discretion, when left unregulated, can be abused. ZNBC and Prime TV have undoubtedly abused discretion. Moving forward, media discretion needs to be immediately addressed. We think that media regulation should include rules governing “silence periods”, “opinion polls”, “political news”, and “political advertising”. Notably, a system needs to be put in place for enforcement of rules on data transparency and protection during election periods.
The rules should be extended to transparency in the proceedings of the Constitutional Court during presidential election petitions. In this regard, it may helpful to refer to presidential elections the recent 2017 and 2018 held in Kenya and Zimbabwe whereby petition proceedings were covered live on TV and online media. This considerably helped preserve the integrity of the respective courts. Not only that. This also helped to ensure transparency in free expression of the will of the people and demonstrate sincerity of the vote outcome. This will also eliminate the risk of being cited for unbalanced coverage, opinionated news and use of derogatory language towards the court, as the people will follow court proceedings live and not through opinions of other persons.
Finally, it is worth reiterating the point that legislation of general application, such as legislation governing elections and political parties, is where the rules for broadcasting, print and online media during elections need to be found, as opposed to stand-alone rules like the IBA Act. At the moment, the Electoral Processes Act of 2016, for example, lacks as section that addresses media rules. This lacuna needs to be remedied. Furthermore, Government is contemplating enacting political parties’ legislation. We suggest that a section dedicated to rules on fair coverage of political parties by broadcasting, print and online media before, during and after elections needs to be included.
The Author is a the President of the Opposition Greens Party in Zambia