By Dr Parkie Mbozi
THIS YEAR (2021) is historic for Zambia for three reasons: 1. The country goes to the polls and in African politics elections always bring with them conflict around transparency and fairness; 2. We just entered the year with an escalation of Covid 19 cases; and 3, for some reason, both multiparty-era changes of government have happened in a year ending with the digit 1 (i.e. 1991 and 2011).
Each of these phenomena will come with its own challenges for the mass media. By mass media we mean the “diverse array of media technologies that reach a large audience via mass communication. … Broadcast media transmit information electronically via media such as films, radio, recorded music, or television. Digital media comprises both Internet and mobile mass communication.……” The mass media include newspapers – both print and digital or online.
In today’s digitized world, we make another distinction between ‘new media’ and ‘traditional media’. New media’ is a term used to describe all forms of media that are ‘native’ to and depend on computers for computational and redistribution. They are a form of independent or self-publishing platforms, which includes blogging, micro-blogging, social media networking, among others”. New media began to emerge around 1994, after the invention of the commercial use of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee.
Traditional mass media’ is used interchangeably with ‘mainstream media’. It refers to television, radio and print newspapers but also include “non-electronic mediums which work as part of our culture and as vehicles of transmitting tradition from one generation to another.” Both new and traditional media are vital to democracy and development generally and will be in the spotlight in Zambia this year. Recent research data show that social networking sites (Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp), for instance, have rapidly become a ‘tool and symbol’ of present-day democracy.
The Zambian mass media, both private and state-controlled, are expected to play critical and unique traditional functions for both the 2021 elections and fighting the Covid 19 pandemic. They will also be expected to avert, and not escalate, conflict radiating from the elections. How they discharge their functions will be in the spotlight. The public will be anxious to know how they will cover the elections in such a way as to make them transparent, free and fair. Will they abet or escalate conflict emanating from the elections? How will they handle the anxieties emanating from the perception that this could be a year for change? How will they cover the raising Covid 19 cases, especially with the reported spread of the more infectious variant of the virus?
Let us work through these questions by examining the traditional functions of the media in society. For this article I will focus on what is expected of our mass media in covering the 2021 elections.
The functions of the media in elections can be analysed from two perspectives: 1. Functionalist tradition, which argues that news consumers know what we want from the media. They turn to them (media) to satisfy their wants, needs and goals. 2. Normative perspective, which says that the media fraternity and society at large expect the media to perform certain roles and to behave in particular ways.
In the second category, the role of media is broadly spelt out in the Constitution of the land and the specs for election media coverage are spelt out in subsidiary laws, such as the Electoral Act and in treaties of regional blocs, notably the Southern African Development Community and the African Union as well as of the United Nations statutes. Over and above these, the media are also (self) regulated by the code of ethics, which prescribe the dos and don’ts of the profession.
However, a precondition for the media to play the roles we expect of them before, during, and after elections as that they will need to operate in a free environment. If there is “no free press,” there is “no democracy”. Therefore, democracy and a free media have a symbiotic relationship. Press freedom applies to both production and consumption of news and information. On the production side journalists must not be hindered to access sources of news and information and should be free of censorship (internal and external) in their reportage of news, especially that which is perceived to be unpalatable to the media organization or its owners or controllers.
Therefore, on the production side press freedom vis-à-vis covering elections applies to journalists working for both state and private media. Journalists working for state-controlled, though public-owned, media operate under the stranglehold of the ruling party, Patriotic Front. This results in self-censorship imposed by the puppet heads of these media in their quest to please the PF. This should not be allowed this year. The public media are funded by tax and license payers (in the case of ZNBC), who happen to be all Zambians irrespective of who they support politically. The public media have an obligation to cover everyone fairly and equally. Lessons are there to be learnt from South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC), if not BBC.
Journalists working in privately-owned media also face restrictions in covering political parties and individuals not favoured by the owner/s of the media establishment. With the ongoing polarization in the media in Zambia, we will once again witness a split between supporters of the ruling PF and those sympathetic to the opposition within the private media.
Stakeholders should address these issues as they engage over creating a conducive atmosphere for free and fair elections.
From both the functionalist and normative traditional perspectives, the Zambian media will be expected to perform the following functions around this year’s elections:
Information and news function: Democracy thrives in environments where all the political players have access to the media and articulate their programmes (manifestos) and ideologies without hindrance. Different players need platforms to argue their programmes against their opponents in open debates that allows the electorate to make informed judgements and choices on candidates and political parties. Therefore, for the 2021 elections, the Zambian media will be expected to ensure that voters have useful information on which to base their participation and choices. They will also be expected to provide platforms through which the voices of the electorate are heard by the parties and candidates.
Without information, the voters will be vulnerable to exploitation, misinformation and manipulation by selfish politicians. Media-facilitated debates will enable citizens hold politicians accountable for their pre-election promises. The citizens will also depend on the media to accurately and timely inform them about the outcome of elections.
Utility function: Citizens look to the media to provide them with information they can utlise to learn, adapt and cope with various situations. In the context of the 2021 elections, media will be expected to educate citizens about their civic duties and help them make choices. They will be expected to empower the voters through voter education to ensure that they have all the information about the elections and candidates.
The question is, how effective will the Zambian media as conveyors of utility or instructional information to the citizens about the 2021 elections?
Watchdog role: Society expects that media to work as guardians and protectors of the public interest and resources on their behalf. Journalists are expected to gather information about wrongdoings of people in authority and deliver it to the public. The media work as the ‘fourth estate’, ostensibly as powerful as the Executive, Parliament and Judiciary. In the context of the 2021 elections, the Zambian media will be expected to be catalysts of fair play, transparency and accountability before, during and after the elections. They will be the watchdog of events and issues to keep citizens informed about what is going on around the elections. They will be expected to investigate and alert the nation on any wrongdoing, such as tampering with the votes, vote rigging or abuse of resources.
The question is, how prepared are the Zambian media to perform this function?
Interpretative Role: This type of journalism requires that journalists go beyond the basic facts related to an event and provide more in-depth news coverage. It calls on journalists to be analytical enough to interpret rather than just deliver ‘facts’ as they are given by the sources. It means journalists fully educate themselves about the subject. It demands of them to look for systems, rationale and influences that explain what they are reporting on. They must interrogate what they receive from sources and go beyond the ordinary with trend-setting articles, powerful think-pieces and further straying into the field of investigative reporting.
For the 2021 elections, the media need to ask questions, sometimes tough ones, about, say, the preparations for the elections (e.g. on where, why, the ballots being printed from) or discrepancies in intended against registered voters.
Managing conflict: as stated earlier, the media can escalate or avert conflict around elections depending on how they cover it. They can be a source when they work unprofessionally, such as not being objective or siding with one party to the conflict or when their reports are offense to individuals, organizations or societies at large. Unprofessional coverage can incite hatred and violent conflicts, damage people’s and organizations reputations, businesses and disrupt social and economic life in general. Examples abounds where the public and PF-sponsored private media have sheepishly sided with the ruling party even when commonsense demands that they hear both sides to the conflict or to conduct independent investigations.
The question is, will the Zambian media be professional enough to avert rather than escalate conflict around the 2021 elections?
The Role of Media Ethics
Ethics are a set of moral principles or values, which guide the conduct of journalism. They are self-regulatory rules which guide the conduct of the media. Therefore, other than on the achievement of the aforesaid traditional functions, in 2021 the Zambian media will be judged on how they adhere to the following ethical principles:
Objectivity: “representing things as they really are”.
Accuracy: “putting all important detail of a particular story”, “verifying and checking your facts thoroughly using more one source”, and “putting the relevant facts in proper context.”
Balance: ‘‘give equal say to all parties’’ or “to present every side in every story.”
Impartiality: “not taking sides.”
Truthfulness: “ability of the media to be in accord with fact or reality. Truth is usually held to be opposite to falsehood.”
Fairness: ‘“Reporting information without favouritism, self-interest and prejudice.”
Exaggeration: not “to enlarge beyond bounds or the truth.”
ZNBC and 2021 Elections
With its national coverage, no doubt ZNBC is the most important media player during elections. Therefore, stakeholders MUST make sure it covers the 2021 elections ethically following the above principles. Additional principles apply to ZNBC: the ZNBC Act of 2002, even with the 2010 amendments, and the Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) principles.
Stakeholders should educate themselves how these two principles can enforce ethical conduct at ZNBC.