By Chanda Mfula
Notwithstanding my suspicion that the need for regulation is not the foremost issue facing the media in Zambia, I take a view that the regulatory framework proposed through the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC) bill appears to threaten independence, freedom, professionalism, and even the self-regulation of the media that it appears to promote. I raise doubts that voluntary, independent self-regulation of the media in Zambia can be achieved by bringing all media under a unitary involuntary regulatory body which regulates all aspects from content to accreditation to training and professional issues. I propose a focus on developing a common ethical standard to achieve regulatory coherence directed at serving the public interest rather than compelling all media to be under the regulation of a single entity.
Recent history suggests that the biggest issues the media face in Zambia relate to freedom and independence, alongside the vexing question of sustainability under the longstanding unfavourable socioeconomic environment. There is still a great deal of work which needs to be directed towards ensuring that laws are revisited to guarantee the freedom and independence of both public and private media in the context of the ever-evolving information, communication, and media technologies, and, with it, the changing topology of journalism. For example, the political-economic stranglehold on the Zambian television sector by the government in collaboration with some foreign entities shows how the liberating potential of new and advanced (digital) technologies could be foiled in politically sophisticated ways which ensure that these technologies are deployed in tightening the control on the media and citizens’ access to information. The real struggle in Zambia across history has been countering control as well as the oppression and suppression of the media, exemplified in recent times by the closure of The Post, a leading independent newspaper, and, once upon a time, Prime Television. Granted, self-regulation can be a part answer, if even cathartically, to such situations. However, there are many insufficiencies and several other disquieting aspects, in relation to the way the ZAMEC draft bill seeks to actualise such self-regulation, which may prove self-defeating for the media.
I need to say, immediately, that it is important to candidly debate the question of how Zambia actualises self-regulation of the media without allowing personal tirades to undermine the pertinence of the subject. I have already seen hints of personal emotive jibes being traded 1through the media from both the media owners and the proponents of the ZAMEC law. This will neither be helpful to the debate nor to any resolution but will serve to side-track issues which are central to the development of the media at a time when the media’s role in the body politic is ever more salient. It is in the spirit of such open debate that I frame my contribution to question the idea behind the ZAMEC framework rather than harangue its proponents. I (and the country, I believe) would benefit from responses to my argument.
I want to begin by wondering whether ZAMEC wants to be all and do all. In the draft bill, the proponents of ZAMEC suggest a range of regulatory functions for the body, from accreditation of journalists and issuing of press cards to regulating the ethical and professional conduct of individual journalists, as well as regulating media organisations and outlets (or their content).
This is in addition to the proposal that ZAMEC should ‘Determine and review training programmes for journalists in Zambia’ (ZAMEC draft bill, Part II(4)(g)). Isn’t this a case of monopolising all the regulatory functions by one body? In many ways, one wonders if this does not nullify the idea of checks and balances, besides risking the very idea of independent and voluntary self-regulation, which, in my view, is best sustained through a multiplicity of independent bodies with alternate and complementary functions and mandates. Perhaps ZAMEC’s proponents need to address the apparent conflation of all these regulatory functions under one umbrella body and the potential problems this poses.
I am curious, for instance, about why the professional affairs and conduct of individual journalists should not be left to professional bodies. Similarly, the issuance of press cards to journalists could be handled by such bodies or even unions such as the Zambia Union of Journalists (ZUJ). The accreditation of journalism training and education could best be handled by organisations which have long been involved in media development, training, and research. This is the role I would envisage for the Media Institute of Southern Africa (MISA). Without a doubt, the accreditation for journalism training programmes has an important place in improving the quality of journalism. However, that would perhaps best be carried out by the likes of MISA, with their experience in this area, and if they wish to evolve further in that direction. Organisations such as MISA have sufficient credibility to contribute to journalism education and training and to persuade universities and colleges to seek their accreditation.
They could also convince employers to employ journalists with accredited qualifications, a selling point for the employers. Such bodies could even offer advanced journalism practice courses for graduates. With minor restructuring, MISA can become a credible accreditation 2body (but not the only one!) for media, and a safe bet for employers wishing to recruit high calibre journalists. It cannot be denied, though, that there would be obvious overlaps in the functions of the different players within the regulatory complex comprising content regulators, professional organisations, accreditation bodies, unions, and so on. Nevertheless, this should as much as possible have to do with the inevitable rather than the deliberate. The dispersal of regulatory functions is important in creating transparent and accountable systems and processes (of which content regulation is but just one) and in avoiding possible conflicts of interest.
The ZAMEC draft bill also presents some sort of confusion in relation to the subject or focus of their proposed ‘self-regulation’. Isn’t the focus supposed to be on media organisations rather than individual journalists? With the rare exception of some freelance journalists who publish their output on their own platforms (something currently feasible only in online spaces), journalists’ output often finds an outlet through established and organised media such as newspapers, radio, television, and online news websites. These media have editorial processes and should therefore assume responsibility for the content they choose to disseminate. Doesn’t this, therefore, suggest that the proposed ZAMEC bill ought to focus its regulation on media organisations rather than individual journalists? Connected to this is the proposed registration or licensing of journalists. This constitutes a threat which can be used to silence certain voices. It is very easy for such licensing to be politicised and brought under the tutelage and control of the same political authorities the media are required to hold to public account. Journalism is core to freedom and democracy and should not be regulated or licensed like other professions whose relationship to democracy and freedom is less central.
Furthermore, even when we assume ZAMEC would focus on regulating content only (including, or especially, hearing public complaints), it would be catastrophic for self-regulation if media and journalists were to be compelled to be members of ZAMEC by law. That is not self-regulation at all. Self-regulation implies that media decide which mechanism they use for their own regulation. ZAMEC could be an option, but the media should freely decide whether they want to belong to ZAMEC or another body, or set up their own self-regulation framework altogether, including in-house. While I am wary of coloniality, there is a leaf to take out of the United Kingdom, where there are two membership-based regulators for print media, one regulator for broadcasters, and media which belong to neither of the regulators but have their own internal self-regulation, such as the Guardian, the Financial Times and the Independent. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) also puts internal self-regulation as 3an option to the processes of the broadcasting regulator, the Office of Communications (Ofcom).
That said, if, indeed, Zambia is to go the ZAMEC way, at least two key stakeholders need to agree with the self-regulation mechanism they implement, and these are media owners or organisations and journalists. Even so, to bring all journalists and media organisations under the regulation of a single entity is more dangerous than beneficial to self-regulation and threatens to roll back the clock on media freedom and independence. One only needs to imagine what happens if such a body becomes vulnerable to political manipulation, infiltration or comprise.
This leads me to the important question of funding, with all its political-economic implications, and whether undertaking even just one of the proposed range of regulatory functions would be sustainable for a body which proposes to generate its funds from membership fees, grants and donations, as well as what they call ‘project funds’ (without specifying the source of such ‘project funds’). All these funding sources signal some serious precarity. Let us consider membership fees, for example. Throughout the proposed bill, there is mention of ‘different classes of membership’ (I have an issue – for another day – regarding the use of the word ‘class’ in the draft bill), but no mention of corporate membership. One would easily assume, therefore, that individual journalists would be the ones to pay membership fees. In the current media-economic climate in Zambia, it is hard to imagine journalists affording to pay membership fees, when some of them have needed ‘blalizo’ (payments from sources, also known as ‘brown envelope journalism’) to keep going. Many Zambian journalists are either paid way below inflation or not paid at all. Many media organisations operate with little or no budget, meaning that even if corporate membership is included in the ZAMEC scheme, it is hardly likely that media organisations will offer sufficient resources by way of membership fees. The Zambian media landscape is characterised by a small and precarious market and with most media competing for the little available advertising revenue, it is unlikely there would be enough resources to extend to ZAMEC.
Similarly, grants and donations in their traditional sense are just as precarious, with the steady decline of donor funding. Such financing could also be avenues for forces with different agendas to assume control of the media. There is, for instance, a real risk of politically motivated donations and grants, which would defeat the purpose of self-regulation. Proponents of ZAMEC need to state clearly, and in the provisions of the proposed law, the mechanisms 4which would be in place to screen sources of funding. They need to show how they would ensure transparency and what type of donors and grant-aiders would be accepted. Such information cannot be excused as ‘detail’ because it borders on the independence, integrity, and credibility of any foreseeable self-regulation.
The question of potential political control brings me to the final concern I have about ZAMEC. Almost from nowhere, a role pops up for a government minister in the draft copy of the bill, which seems to be a shabby and improperly numbered addition to the original draft under Part VII. Specifically, it suggests that:
“The Minister may, by statutory instrument, on the recommendation of the Council, make regulations to provide for – (a) the terms and conditions for the issuance of a registration certificate; (b) the type of continuous professional development and training and any other information required for the issuance of a registration certificate; and (c) any other matter necessary for the purposes of this Act” (The Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC) Draft Bill 2021, p.15).
This last self-explanatory bit throws into question the commitment of the ZAMEC proponents to self-regulation. The media and journalists should be wary of the above addition to the draft bill because it undoubtedly nullifies everything else and renders the changes proposed by ZAMEC cosmetic. These will merely be changes to the structure of the same old government control and regulation of the media.
To sum up my take-homes, ZAMEC should not be a regulator of ‘all things media’, and neither should they be the sole regulator in the aspects they choose to regulate because this goes against the spirit of self-regulation. Belonging to ZAMEC should not be compulsory for the media either as this also defeats the essence of self-regulation. There is also a need to think hard and deep about funding and its scarcity, precarity, as well as its political and other implications, including the question of sustainability. Importantly, my argument does not go against the need for regulatory coherence or a common code of ethics framework. Perhaps this should be the primary focus of the media’s bid for self-regulation: to agree on a common framework for media standards to be used in all self-regulation effort (whether carried out inhouse or through a regulator) rather than to compel every media house and journalist to be under the regulation of ZAMEC.
About the author:
Dr Chanda Mfula is Deputy Chair of the Editorial Working Group (EWG) of the Review of African Political Economy (ROAPE) journal. He is a researcher in media, politics, and political economy, and lecturer in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Education at the University of Hertfordshire, UK; He holds a PhD in Media and Politics from the University of Sussex, UK, and an MA in Communications, Media and Public Relations from the University of Leicester, UK.