By Isaac Mwanza
“I treasure the fact there’s media freedom, but with that goes responsibility. I think that there should be a self-regulatory organisation and that they should start to think about standards…” ~ Ray Dalio
There are times when the media itself noticed or notices that it could have strayed in the manner of reporting information, sometimes to the extent of unjustly destroying people’s lives. No one took responsibility. Those are times that call for the media to be held answerable to the public that it serves and to itself.
The flimsy argument that when one is aggrieved by any misinformation or action of by the media, the aggrieved party must approach the courts of law for redress, fails to take into account the fact that some damage cannot be atoned in form of court awards.
What is more in Zambia is that it is a very costly and painfully slow process to get justice from our courts of law. Certain transgressions committed by journalists and the media do not need to reach our courts of law if they can be resolved through a competent authority within and among the media itself, away from the courts.
However, the question of media accountability has, for decades now, remained conceptually unresolved and an implementation nightmare.
A difficulty in resolving the issue of media regulation arises from the fact that there has been a lack of adequate understanding of media accountability and government draftspersons responsible for crafting a regulatory framework have not acted with honesty but have instead opted to make provisions that puts government in control of the media, in the same way they have managed to do so with NGOs, or may criminally penalise journalists.
Insights from scholars suggest that media accountability is a process, one that compels the media to conform to certain uniform standards which society expects from them and can therefore hold them answerable to those standards. Conformity can either be voluntary or involuntary.
Such accountability implies that the media and media practitioners, like lawyers and legal practitioners, become answerable to the profession for the truthfulness, quality or consequences of what they publish.
Media accountability thus requires some form of regulation which binds all media houses and practitioners to the same ethical standards and possible civil sanctions such as compensation, retraction and binding apologies, for violation of those professional standards without exclusion. And therein lies what has been a challenge on the model of regulation that achieves such accountability.
WAY FORWARD ON MEDIA REGULATION
Essentially, the media landscape in Zambia can be regulated in three ways.
First, there is self-regulation, which media owners in Zambia seem to prefer; this method is where the media draw up their own regulations and take full responsibility for monitoring compliance with those regulations through a media council.
This type of media regulation can only be effective if it binds all media owners and media practitioners to these regulations. Where it becomes voluntary to belong to the media council and there are no consequences for disregarding the findings of a media council, as it has been done in South Africa, this type of regulation is as good as no regulation at all.
The second means of regulation is statutory regulation in which the State sets the relevant legislative or regulatory rules and monitors and enforces compliance in a transparent way. This author does not support this form of regulation.
In an environment like Zambia, where the media, in its duty to hold politicians and government and private officials to account and to expose evils in both government and the private sector, thereby clashing with political interests, statutory-regulation of the media is a very dangerous trap for media houses.
Politicians use and abuse the power conferred on them by statute, to make rules and monitor compliance which can silence the media.
The last model of media regulation is referred to as co-regulation or self-regulation backed by statute. This is a hybrid form where self-regulation ultimately is back-stopped by statutory regulation.
Writing in the Canadian Journal of Communication on the role of press councils in a system of media accountability, Pritchard asserts that the essence of accountability lies in naming, shaming and claiming, which essentially means identifying a problem, naming the offending media, and claiming apology or compensation.
Media regulation is enforced by law, rules or procedures and varies across the world. These regulations exist to protect freedom of expression and media freedom and to regulate media markets, ownership, infrastructure, standards and, most importantly, to protect public interest such as media pluralism and diversity.
Since 1973, the co-regulation model for the legal profession in Zambia has worked very well as it has allowed the profession itself rather than government to set and enforce the rules, demand compliance and punish those who fail to abide by the standards.
The fact that it is involuntary means that everyone in this profession ought to abide by those standards. No one can practice law without being regulated by the professional association for lawyers.
This author strongly recommends that the media in Zambia, should consider going that route and that government must support the self-regulation of the media which is backed by statute, not by the Bill which has been adulterated by government drafters but the first draft by the media itself must become the basis of discussion.
Media co-regulation has also been effective in Kenya. It has given the media itself full control of the rule making function, enforcement and sanctioning. Government ability to interfere in the independent functioning or operations of the media, is stopped by the law itself.
In neighbouring Zimbabwe, the media had also agreed to co-regulation of the media at the Kadoma Writeshop under the leadership of the Media Institute for Southern Africa – Zimbabwe Chapter (MISA Zimbabwe). This led to the generation of the Media Practitioners Bill which was to establish the Zimbabwe Media Practitioners Council as the first entry point for lodging complaints against the media.
The Zimbabwean media had envisaged a framework whose key principles included inclusivity, recognition for diversity, a unified code of ethics and standards, professionalism and media accountability.
Both the regulation of NGOs and the media must follow the model that empowers these sectors to truly self regulate although protected by statute. NGO and media co-regulation should not include provisions that have an effect of entrenching subtle statutory regulation or just be a form of piecemeal reforms that fail to address long-standing contestations against statutory regulation.
Access to information and media regulation (including regulation of other key institutions) are inter-linked. Access to Information will allow the media and citizens generally to access information held by government. Just like any other human right, access to information comes with responsibilities.
Media regulation is meant to achieve accountability of the media in performance of its function to receive, disseminate and impart information to the public. When considering the model of regulation, the author believes that statutory regulation should have no place in Zambia, as it may be used to silence or even to kill the media.
On the other hand, self-regulation which is not compulsory for the media and media practitioners, and whose rules and sanctions are non-binding or can be ignored, does not achieve anything at all. It is the firm belief of this author that the media in Zambia can replicate the self-regulation which has been used by the legal profession in this very country and is in use in Kenya, to get the desired result.
Self-regulation of the media which is supported by a law binds every practitioner and the media itself, prevents or stops government interference in the media, and does not criminally penalise journalists and media houses for human lapses while promoting compulsory accountability for the media and media practitioners to itself and society, is the way to go.
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