One of my foreign colleagues remarked that “Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) is public, so why should it always suit government.” Many local and independent minds have asked the similar question on several occasions. The likeliness for media to be co-opted by excessive political, ethnic or other forces appears to be on the rise - at least in Zambia.

The situation isn’t good especially now that Zambians need news that is accurate, fair and balanced so that they can make right choices in this year’s (2011) presidential, parliamentary, local government elections. The public media can do more by remaining non-partisan because tax payers have a stake in its affairs.

The contribution of the media in the electoral process is critical to the holding of free, fair and credible elections. This can only be made possible by a free, independent and pluralistic media. In a democracy the media helps create an informed citizenry and provide a platform for inclusive public debate.

In the words of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), “good journalism is in the interest of the public. It offers news that is accurate, fair and balanced; gives voice to the voiceless and contains the diversity of views that a particular story demands.”

This observation is particularly important as the people of Zambia prepare to vote. People savour a media which pays extra attention to ethical standards and professionalism as a way to avoid fuelling violence during elections. In an election year, the media is cast into the spotlight as many people crave for news which will help them make informed decisions as they go to cast their vote. In modern democracies, journalists enjoy protected rights to move freely to collect news and views and demand transparency and accountability. In turn, the media must be responsible and operate with a clear conscience and remain objective. This does not mean that their freedom will not be tested by those who are targeted by its fact-finding and watchdog role. The only protection for any criticism is by the journalists paying continual attention to ethical standards of fairness, accuracy and balance in their reporting.

Free and independent media don’t come by accident. One of the ways we can achieve this is by making correct approaches to media regulation - encouraging independent regulatory bodies and help self-regulation initiatives work. Government can play an important role in this process by putting in place policies which encourages growth and independence of the media industry. In December 2002 two laws which should have made the public broadcaster independent of government oversight and placed control of broadcast licensing in the hands of an independent body were passed. Unfortunately these laws have not been fully enacted. The Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC Act) and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA Act) together set up independent boards for the national broadcaster and the broadcast regulatory body, respectively, but these aspects of the law were never implemented.

As the election date nears, there are signs of government’s desire not to let go of its grip on media control. As clearly noted by the International Press Institute (IPI) “the continued refusal by government to work with the self-regulatory body… is a political desire to control information ahead of this year’s general elections.”

The media has done its work by coming up with a self-regulation framework under the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC). To date, ZAMEC is not operational because government is reluctant to allow its media institutions participate freely. The government owned Times of Zambia and the Daily Mail newspapers, the public broadcaster Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) as well as the Zambia News and Information Services (ZANIS) are among the largest and most significant media houses, and these outlets’ participation in ZAMEC is critical to its success. Proponents of self-regulation believe the government is more interested in strong-arming the media industry ahead of the elections.

What should be clear to government is that once self-regulation becomes operational, the media itself will help in building trust and credibility and improve quality standards. ZAMEC will create a channel to deal with complaints about the work of the media through collective decision making. Such a system offer guarantees to the public about the quality of information it receives, demonstrate that media professionals are responsible, and show that extended state regulation of the media is not needed.

 

Charels Mafa - Journalist