By Parkie Mbozi
The News Diggers of 11th March 2019 carried a story in which the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry Information and Broadcasting Services (MIBS) roundly condemned our national broadcaster, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), for biased coverage.
The story was titled, “Kasolo Tells off US Embassy: Talk to Trump about media freedom”. He was reported to have been made the comments during the “Let The People Talk’ programme on Radio Phoenix. After reading through, I felt the article could have as well been titled, “Kasolo Tells off ZNBC: Go Back to Your Basics”. This is the most scathing attack of ZNBC by a serving government official, more so the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ (CEO) of MIBS. What more does ZNBC need to hear in order to arise and indeed go back to the basics of professionalism. Let’s pose for a second and analyse Mr. Kasolo comments in detail and put them into the context of the ethos of a Public Service Broadcasting (PSB), which ZNBC has been sloganeering to be, every news time.
First, Mr. Kasolo says, “I was there two days ago. I was speaking to the Director of Programmes and also my good friend who runs the Sunday Interview Mr. Zulu (Grevazio) and I said to them, it’s about time we started improving our outlook and image of ZNBC. We must allow the opposition to come on certain programmes and also out their views. We must allow debate between opposition and ruling party MPs and Ministers. And I know that my honourable Minister (Dora) Siliya is very keen that we do that. We discussed at length.”
Confirming ZNBC’s loss of one key media principle – credibility – Mr. Kasolo further said, “We need to bring back ZNBC to where it was a trusted source. At the moment everyone is suspicious of them. They are looking at them and saying, ‘no they are biased’.” To lose trust, as the Mr Kasolo implies, also means losing believability; it means people don’t believe what ZNBC reports on. Hence, what a waste of ZNBC’s resources (time, financial, materials etc) and of those of the audiences, the poor Zambians who are made to pay TV levies, if its content (News and otherwise) can’t even be believed? Any medium which loses believability and overall credibility is as good as not being there.
Referring to the infamous malady called ‘hierarchical news order’, which we have been subjected to for years, Mr. Kasolo added, “His Excellency the President, has stated himself and he is on record that why should it be Edgar, Edgar, Edgar? Why can’t they bring other people on, including the opposition.”
What more instructions do our colleagues at ZNBC want? What excuse will they give henceforth for unbalanced, unfair, selective (and you name it) coverage? Let’s take Mr. Kasolo for his word. Let’s give him the benefit of doubt; that he means what he says. Actually, if ZNBC thought they were doing anyone a favour, they have got what the English call a ‘Kick in the teeth’. Bakusambilani. You are on your own, disowned and exposed. You are now taking all the heat and from now on the Zambian people will heap all the blame on you if you fail to do the right thing – to be ALWAYS professional and ethical. Mr Kasolo’s rebuke should be construed as an indictment on the professional integrity of the entire rank and file of ZNBC. It is actually shameful and unbefitting of our national broadcaster to be educated on what they should know best. Should there be any doubts about where ZNBC goes from now and the things they need to do and/or avoid, here are a few tips:
Professional Ethics: Back to basics! Stick to professional ethics, which are taught to anyone entering the journalism profession. These are enshrined in Codes of Ethics of self-regulatory bodies (Media Councils) or Press Ombudsmen, wherever they exist world-wide. For a refresher, the key principles are: fairness, objectivity, accuracy, balance, truthfulness, impartiality and factual. Merely sticking to these would save ZNBC the humiliation it has just experienced. It is these values that tough-tested journalism professionals swear to protect and defend, even when so-doing means going to jail or losing a job for.
Lessons abound how the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the famed model of PSB globally, fought to protect these values through strikes, petitions, court actions, boycotts, etc when the British Government tried to gag them over coverage of the Irish Republican Army, in particular Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in 1981 and the IRA leader Gerry Adams on a number of occasions.
On the flip side, it is these values that see those who stick by them stand the ‘test of time’. In the case of ZNBC and other public media, the ‘test of time’ would be to survive ‘regime change’. We crave a time when the heads of public media would serve different governments. We want to experience it in our life time.
Adherence to PSB principles. To be respected as a national broadcaster is not by self-acclamation. It is EARNED by adhering to the PSB principles (all ZNBC staff are expected to know them). Two of the eight PSB principles, firmly based on classic Reithian model, are: providing “space for free expression and open debate” and providing “objective and impartial information and news.”
Principle 4, ‘editorial Independence’, demands that the broadcaster should be recognised as autonomous in the eyes of ALL stakeholders. It must practice editorial independence “in order to protect and enhance free expression and the journalistic and creative functions” and must insulate itself against external pressures (political, financial, commercial, etc) and internal pressures (self-censorship, managements control, etc).
The African Broadcasting Charter seeks, among other issues, the transformation of all state controlled broadcasters into public service broadcasters who should serve the public interest and be accountable to all sections of society through balanced and inclusive reporting.
Adherence to ZNBC Act: Even with the Amendments of 2010, the principle of inclusivity which was enshrined in the ZNBC Act of 2002 is still there in black and white. Section 7 of the Act spells out the functions of ZNBC. The relevant sub-sections read, 7. (1) (a) provide varied and balanced programming for all sections of the populations; (b) serve the public interest; (e) contribute to the development of free and informed opinions and as such, constitute an important element of the democratic process; (f) reflect, as comprehensively as possible, the range of opinions and political, philosophical, religious, scientific, and artistic trends. These are self-explanatory, so I leave it there in the interest of space.
Finally, Mr Kasolo says even the President is not happy to be No. 1 news item all the time. Again, this is something ZNBC should know best. It is all about basic definition of news, which should guide news rooms, editors’ diaries, etc. What he was referring to here is the abominable practice called ‘hierarchical news order’. It means placing news and so-called news stories hierarchically according to the political hierarchy of those in government. The Late Prof Kasoma wrote and taught extensively on the menace during the UNIP (totalitarian) days. How can this continue in a democracy?
When all is said and done, there is no going back for ZNBC. The narrative, logic and mood are all clear. If they are not, print copies of the speech and paste in newsrooms, situation rooms, boardrooms, etc. If there will be any other counter-instructions from anyone else – given the limited ‘shelf life’ of politicians and their appointees, refer to this particular instruction. If need be, learn from the BBC or from how you have handled labour-related matters all along.
The power is in your hands!
The author is media and communication scholar, research fellow and PhD candidate based in South Africa.