By Parkie Mbozi
The 2021 general election came and went. Unlike the 2016 election, the 2021 one has been won by the opposition, specifically the United Party for National Development (UPND) and its presidential candidate Hakainde Hichilema and running mate Mutale Nalumango.
The opposition won against the backdrop of unprecedented biased coverage of the pre-election period by the public media in favour of the then ruling Patriotic Front (PF) party. Research reports abounds about how the opposition was glaringly denied access to and coverage by the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail and Zambia News and Information Services (ZANIS).
Various adjectives can be used to describe the conduct of the public media during the last election, much like in 2016. Put simply, they were pathetic, lazy and unprofessional. However, with the opposition having not only won but won big, it is easy and convenient to just move on and forget about these ills. So it was with the PF when it won the 2011 election, it can easily be with the UPND. I argue, however, that the NEW DAWN government should conduct a postmortem of what it went through for 23 years at the hands of the public media, take stock and embark on comprehensive and long-lasting media reforms.
Once and for all we should, as a country, take bold steps to address the unprofessional conduct of the public media, especially towards elections. An advance warning to the current ruling UPND though, reforming public media comes with the cost of forfeiting the preferential treatment in these media. And I say to that, brace yourselves for this forfeiture for the good of the country and its democracy for generations to come. Then President-elect Hichilema made a hint of it when, during his first press conference, he told ZNBC something like, “if you don’t need to cover us, it’s Ok, don’t come”. This is a good start!
Before I suggest strategies to create a free, independent and professional public media in Zambia, let me summarise the behaviour of the public media over the immediate past. First, they were unprofessional, in other words unethical. Professionalism in journalism is judged by how the media players adhere to the principles or canons of ethical conduct. The ethics are enshrined in Codes of Ethics of self-regulatory bodies (Media Councils) or Press Ombudsmen, wherever they exist world-wide. The key principles are: fairness, objectivity, accuracy, balance, truthfulness, impartiality and factual.
ZNBC and the other public media were none of the above principles throughout the 10 years of the PF and 20 years of the MMD, especially during the elections. Successive post-election reports of all election observer groups, without exception, made reference to how the public media favoured the ruling party. Same story election in election out.
Giving free, fair coverage and equitable access to opposition parties and any citizen on ZNBC and other public media, which are funded out of public money, is a constitutional mandate. In other words, not doing so ought to be a criminal offence. Hence during the last election ZNBC ought to have given the Zambian voters an opportunity to see and hear the opposition as much as they allowed the PF to be perpetually headline and prime time or front page news, but they didn’t. The ‘DEADNBC’ news was reduced to PF news, characteristically following PF hierarchy. Even adverts of key opposition parties, in particular the UPND, would not be freely aired on ZNBC. In a few instances where I heard a UPND radio advert, it was unexplainably interrupted by, or deliberately juxtaposed with, a PF advert. Yet the PF adverts were all over.
So, Yes, there is a chorus doing the rounds that let’s forgive, forget and move on. It is also logical to argue that, “Why the hake bother? After all UPND won the elections.” I argue, that is wrong in the context of media behaviour in this country and the future of our democracy. The ‘feel-good’ factor is what got us here in the first place. Don’t be deceived by how good these media want to look now that you are in power. The MMD started good media reforms in terms of the ZNBC Amendment Act of 2002; the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) of 2002; and the Freedom of Information (FoI) Bill also of 2002. However, none of these originally good pieces of legislation survived adulteration at the hands of political expediency.
The IBA Act has undergone two amendments since it was first assented in December 2002. From these two amendments, the Act has metamorphosed from one that would have created some semblance of a truly ‘Independent’ broadcasting regulatory authority to one that has ended up creating a parastatal, almost in its entirety. The ZNBC Act suffered the same fate. The FoI Bill is just that, a Bill, despite numerous promises to take it to Parliament for enactment since the MMD era.
Second, the public media, especially ZNBC, were pathetically mediocre and to say the least, lazy, even in covering the election-day and post-election day activities, especially the announcement of results. ZNBC coverage was reduced to boring studio talks and presidential totaling centre, Mulungushi, yet the private media, with own meagre resources, made attempts to cover totaling centres and other events, figures and contexts across the country. ZNBC were simply lazy, boring and uncreative. No value for money.
The above shortcomings point to the need for reforms that would create what I call ‘ideal media’, with the hallmarks of free, independent and professional media. Without re-inventing the wheel, we need to revert to principles espoused in the Third Republic media reforms that culminated in the IBA Act, ZNBC Amendment Act and the FoI Bill, all of 2002. For each of the three benchmarks, I will articulate what the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Third Republic Media reforms foresaw and how they dealt with it.
Media or Press Freedom: a free press is one that can execute its functions unhindered within the bounds of the law and professional code of ethics. Article 20 of the 2016 Constitution of Zambia provides for express freedom of expression and the press.
The ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Third Republic Media reforms sought to guarantee freedom to access information of a public nature through enactment of the FoI Bill of 2002. As said earlier, the Bill remains of the shelves to date. The way forward is to take the Bill, in its original (2002) form, to Parliament for ratification.
Media independence: relates to the media-state relations. In general terms, independence refers to an absence of any external control, particularly from the state. It denotes freedom from the external influence but also the capacity of media institutions to make their decisions and act ONLY according to their own logic. One scholar writes that, “It is closely intertwined with other basic ideals of the liberal-democratic understanding of media’s role in society, such as freedom of the press, critique of power, media as the ‘fourth estate’ and journalists’ watchdog role.”
The ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Third Republic Media reforms sought to guarantee independence of the Zambian media through enacting the ZNBC Act of 2002 and the IBA Act of 2002. Both Acts were intended to forestall independence of the two institutions. This was to be attained primarily through Boards selected competitively and by independent ad hoc appointments committees drawn from stakeholder institutions.
The principle of inclusive, free and fair coverage was enshrined in the ZNBC Act of 2002. Section 7 of the Act spelt 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.
However, the 2002 ZNBC Act was amended to allow the Minister to appoint the Board. Critics have drawn attention to political interference in the operations of the ZNBC specifically, skewing its broadcasting to favour ruling party sources. Speaking on “Let The People Talk’ programme on Radio Phoenix on 10th March 2019, Chanda Kasolo, then MIBS Permanent Secretary, seemed so embarrassed by ZNBC’s naked biased and unprofessional coverage that he had to publicly rebuke the station.
He said (in part), “We must allow the opposition to come on certain programmes and also voice 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.”
The IBA Act went through a similar fate as the ZNBC Act. The original Act provided for an ad hoc committee of independent organisations that would appoint the members of the IBA Board. The independently constituted Board would be the one issuing TV and radio licenses and regulating their operations. Unfortunately, the whole section relating to appointment of the Ad Hoc committee was removed by 2010 Amendment initiated by the MMD government. It was replaced with Section (2) that reads, The Board shall consist of nine part-time members appointed by the Minister.
This amendment is the genesis of the political interference and biased decisions (real or perceived) of the IBA. In 2017, the PF government introduced a clause that was never there before, which impels the IBA to collect TV levies on behalf of ZNBC, a key player in the industry. This is akin to the referee and a player wearing the same jersey and scoring in the same goal post.
The way forward after August 2021 is to restore the IBA Act and ZNBC Act to their original (2002) form. Similar legislation should be introduced pertaining to how the print media and the Zambia News and Information Services (ZANIS) should be independently managed.
Media Professionalism: this benchmark speaks to professional ethics and a highly skilled one. The ethics are enshrined in Codes of Ethics of self-regulatory bodies (Media Councils) or Press Ombudsmen, wherever they exist world-wide. The key principles are: fairness, objectivity, accuracy, balance, truthfulness, impartiality and factual.
The ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Third Republic Media reforms sought to guarantee media professionalism in Zambia through self as a\opposed to state regulation. However, every self-regulation mechanism that has been put in place since 1991 has fallen flat due to disagreements and polarization within the media sector. From Media Council of Zambia (MECOZ) to Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC), nothing has worked.
As a way forward on media regulation, it is logical to suggest for a hybrid mechanism that revolves around a legally constituted entity that ‘self-regulates’ the media. However, once the law is in place, the state should have no role.
To conclude, for the nation to enjoy the benefits of free, independent, and professional media, a fresh start is needed under the NEW DAWN administration. There is absolutely no need to re-invent the wheel. The original IBA Act of 2002, ZNBC Act of 2002 and the Freedom of Information Bill already provide a firm foundation
The author is a Research Fellow with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. He is reachable on [email protected]