Many people on the street and callers to local radio stations in Zambia have expressed their disgust at the way news and current affairs is reported ahead of the 2011 general elections.

We have a situation where the public media is carrying stories of perceived development programmes taking place in the country while the private and independent media puts the government under the microscope. The private media is scrutinizing every deal or move that the government makes. This has not gone down well with the sympathizers of the ruling party and other consumers of information. They want a media that will give them a clear picture of the country in order to make right decision when voting.

While the public have a right to complain about the kind of information they receive, the challenges facing the media go beyond the journalists themselves. Politicians and media owners are the ones who should get the bigger share of the blame for the poor debate on important national issues. The active involvement of government in the affairs of the media has greatly affected the way journalists conduct their work. The current situation where everything starts and ends with the Ministry of Information is what is dividing the media. Political cleavages are dividing the journalistic communities resulting in lack of dialogue and solidarity among the various factions, hence preventing journalists from jointly defending their common interests.

Politicians continue putting persistent political pressure on the media, especially public media to an extent that journalists are now more loyal to those in power at the expense of the public. This close cooperation and mutual dependence on politics is not good especially for a country which is in economic transition. Zambia is currently receiving huge foreign investments in the mining and other key sectors of the economy such as tourism, but the majority of its citizens remain poor. Why is the situation like this? These are the kind of questions that must be answered by politicians.

A small media market and general underdevelopment of the economy means that the media has to ally with political forces to get financial support. This has also definitely affected the way the media functions especially when it comes to its watchdog role. This is key in a modern and functioning democracy. The media’s role in a democracy goes beyond collecting, packaging and disseminating information. The media helps in checking misuse of authority, expose corruption and defend human rights. This can only be possible if the media is fully independent from the state and all forms of political influence.

Notwithstanding, the above concerns, the general environment is good for the media to grow and the journalists to freely collect news. The journalists now have to utilize this opportunity to come up with stories that will help move the country to a “middle income status” as espoused by the country’s Sixth National Development Plan. This will not happen unless we have a critical, independent and pluralistic media. Having an independent media is possible with the help of the international community. Their role in setting up and funding independent media houses is critical. The international community can equally assist in funding formulation of self-regulation mechanisms.  Self-regulation bodies can help in building the much needed trust between the media and the public. It is a mechanism through which disputes can be resolved amicably. The absence of such a body in place means that the public have nowhere to run to whenever they are aggrieved. Court processes take too long and are usually expensive for the average Zambians.

Charles Mafa - Journalists