Author:  Journalist, Media Consultant and Economist Daniel Tonga, June 6 2017 - Over the last few years, the media in Zambia has gone through a lot of changes. The major reasons for these changes have been both political and economic. The pressures of politics and hash economics times have forced the media to drift away from professional values, ethics and objectivities. Back in early 90s, Zambia’s media was professional, objective, ethical and fair in all ways; and this was partly because, then, journalists understood the importance of sticking to these values in their work. Ethics, objectivity, fairness and professional values defined the media. Unfortunately, over time the Zambian media has become too political and polarised. All professional values known for years as essentials and pillars of the media have been thrown out of the window with no place in today’s media. This paper looks at the media in Zambia, how it has changed over time, the causes and possible effects of this change. It examines how politics and hash economics times have affected the media to the detriment of positive social change and development.

THE MEDIA

The media is an important social institution which plays an indispensable role in meeting social, cultural and economic needs of people in every society. Apart from this, the media has so many roles. It helps to shape public opinion, ensures accountability and strengthens democracy. These roles are without exception - therefore, they are applicable to almost every developing country, Zambia included. Through effective and professional use of media, there is a guarantee of achieving positive social change and development because the media helps to fight against poverty, corruption, racism, gender bias and other societal evils. Interestingly, when all societal evils are dealt with, strong institutions begin to emerge that respect the rule of law, culture, rights and freedoms. Ultimately when everything is done and achieved, it translates into positive social change and development. Presently in Zambia, the possibilities of having a just society with positive social change and development seem far-fetched because of how the media has evovled.    

After colonial times, the media went through a number of transformations. Firstly, as soon as Zambia got its independence in 1964, the media came under a new era which brought a bit of freedom but still it was not fully liberalised. In 1991, democracy was introduced in Zambia, and this brought massive change. The media was then liberalized, which saw an increase in the number of both privately and state owned media. During this period, many print newspapers came on board, including electronic media. Commercial and community radio stations also mushroomed. Under this new era, the media began to thrive and flourish because of democracy. However, broadcasting both in colonial and post-colonial times was the prerogative of the government. During this transition, the media understood its cause, mandate and observed professional values until early 2000 when things begun to change.  

Today, both the private and public media have changed. They have become tools for personal gain and meeting individual or groups’ agendas depending on who is behind them. The media’s main role has been twisted. There are several factors that have brought these changes and on top of the list are politics and hash economics times. These have destroyed the media in a way that it has become almost impossible for the media to help bring positive social change and development in the country.   

It is common knowledge that most media outlets face difficulties to sustain operations. This is true for both privately owned and partly state owned media. For example, at Times of Zambia, a government owned state media outlet, journalists have gone for more than three months without being paid and have long complained about poor working conditions. Further, at Zambia Daily Mail, another state owned outlet, payments for journalists are ever delayed often times, and Zambia National Broadcasting Corporate ZNBC workers have protested for either delayed, or lack of, salaries. In case of private media, the situation is worse as many journalists go without pay, with few of them paid less than the minimum wage.  According to Media Institute of South Africa MISA Zambia (2008), there are large discrepancies in the salaries earned by media practitioners – salaries are generally too low to discourage corruption. The report observes that generally, media pay is very low, prompting some journalists to solicit payments from sources.

Unfortunately, this situation has had an impact on journalists because it has become difficult for them to survive with ever more appalling conditions of service. Therefore, this scenario has created a loop-hole, and journalists are now taking up partisan interests in their work to distort truth with a view to please their political sources and get paid for doing that kind of work. Some do it in high expectation of getting political appointments, as the case in point when the late president Michael Chilufya Sata became president in 2011; over seven journalists from a privately owned newspaper were appointed and sent on missions abroad for having aided Sata’s ascension to power. This trend has continued, and now many more journalists have been offered political jobs on the same basis, with state media journalists topping the list. This has become a trend which now robs most journalists of their ethical and professional standards in pursuit of political jobs, hence affecting media’s role to report truth upon which right decisions can be made. Sadly, politicians have taken advantage of harsh realities in the media and are now using journalists to manipulate truth and reap benefits for their own political interests at the expense of many people.

Looking at reporting patterns of news media, pro-government media systematically give more coverage to government officials and those in their league, while pro-opposition media again show the opposite pattern; and, between these two polarised media patterns, there is no media that is neutral except international media that reports news without taking sides - but again, international media reports only big events that have an international bearing and are not present for other stories. So, this creates a vacuum for truthful and unbiased news.

Again, what arrests attention is the way news is reported in the media. On first instance, when a story is reported one might be tempted to believe that it is news reported for the benefit of society; but hidden behind such ‘news’ are personal issues and battles individuals are trying to settle. Most news stories are framed and bent to settle personal scores. Today, it’s common that in every story reported there is a motive behind fixing a perceived enemy as opposed to informing people on an important event for development. So, almost every news story is about fighting to fix perceived enemies with few exceptions. What’s more worrying is how people who own or control the media are using journalists to settle their personal scores. Journalists have been caught up or made to support pay masters in their work just to put food on the table, but this affects and erodes values in journalism.

In other cases, media outlets intentionally omit some important aspects of stories that could be important stories because they don’t want to bring out the bad side of the people or institutions they are supporting. At times, selection of sources by media outlets leaves out sources that have an opposing point of view, deliberately hiding something. This has become a trend and has affected the media.

It has become increasingly difficult to see truth and trust news stories from news outlets because of political agendas attached to news. Even if its truth being reported, there are always political interests inherent in these news stories reported by biased journalists bent either to tarnish the image of an individual or a party just to gain political mileage out of it, depending on the story. Journalists don’t mind about this anymore because they are paid and used by politicians. This has eroded objectivity, fairness and ethics in the media.   

There has been a stream of criticism against objectivity, ethics and professionalism as journalistic norms. Media scholars and seasoned writers have described them as unattainable and subjective both in government or private media. They argue that no one is objective, ethical and professional because we all have predications - genetic special likings or dislikes that threaten all these professional norms. According to Andrew Cline (2009) in an excerpt from “21st Century Communication handbook asserts in his theory that journalists are, by their human nature and intellectual bias, predisposed to be unable to remain completely neutral in their reporting. However, I firmly believe the media can attain these values if journalists could only develop personal attitudes, principles and norms to guide their work. This is possible, especially if journalists can allow themselves to work and get guided by established professional norms, objectivity and ethics to define their work.

WHAT IS AT STAKE

The question that arises is what will be at stake if the media continue on this path? Dennis Mcquail (1908) described the media as an engine of change. This being the case, the media has a significant role in society to bring positive social change and development only if the media can report news in an ethical, professional and objective manner. If failing to take this role, it will be very difficult for the media to help bring positive social change and development. So far, the media has only been serving the economic and political interests of politicians and ‘the powerful’. This has been allowed because politicians have been allowed to dictate how news should be reported and framed in the mainstream media, and journalists have allowed it. This impedes the benefits of what the media can bring to society. 

People depend on the media as the central source of information, and it is the basis upon which people form right opinions, choices and decisions. According to cultural selection theory, any selection of messages in the media will thus have a profound consequence on the entire society, and this is why development communication is used as a strategy for social change. So any rightful news stories reported on the basis of bringing change or having a positive impact can help people make right decisions and choices resulting in positive social change and development.

In his paper Public Perception of Media Bias, Daniel Quackenbush highlights research that was done by Anand, Di Tella and Galetovic (2007) in which they sought to analyse the potential impact of owner preferences in relation to public perceptions. They discovered that distorting truth through biased reporting can prove to be financially disastrous as well as reputedly detrimental, as some consumers demand news that is unbiased. In such cases, media outlets that do not meet consumer preferences are crippled financially and this also affects journalist financially. This might explain why the media in Zambia will continue having financial problems because consumers do not prefer to buy news that is biased.

Its common knowledge that the media has power to expand the horizons of thought and bring social change and development. The media can help people leave certain customs and bring modernity. Therefore, the media can help bring this as positive social change to society leading to development. So it’s important that information that is framed in a way that will influence the public mind set, raise people’s aspirations and bring change and development.

MEDIA AND CHALLENGES

There is no doubt that the prevailing media landscape in Zambia is a hybrid that combines opinion-based, political and witch-hunting media houses. As long as the media continues to be controlled and abused in the manner that has been witnessed its more certain that positive social change and development will be affected. One may argue, “How about other developmental stories -  wouldn’t they help out to influence positive social change and development?” Yes, but the fact is that over 70 percent of stories in the media are more political than developmental, and these have more influence in almost everything in Zambia.  

The media, both public and private, are selective and lack balance as well as fairness in many stories. Public media are very much pro-government, and private media are in favour of opposition. This media scenario is unprofessional as news reports are more about personalities, settling personal scores and misleading with less news about programs that can influence positive social change and development. This is a challenge because the media only serves personal interests of politicians and those in opposition are fighting back. This drives away media’s attention to matters that can bring about positive social change and development.

Media houses lack the proper financial base, both government and private, and this has continued to feed into a culture of bribes, corruption and abrogation of media ethics as well as values. This has affected the media on how they ought to operate.

CONCLUSION

There is a strong political divide which has resulted in the polarisation of the media and has affected the role of the media in Zambia to deliver.  Now more than ever, Zambia requires a vibrant media that will stick to professional values. The media that will not be influenced by politics but core values of the media. It’s possible to draw a line between politics and media through understanding that both have different roles and responsibilities in society. This requires the media that is ethically correct, practically relevant and understands its roles to society in terms of delivering news. It’s possible to avoid politics meddling in the work of media.

There are so many challenges that affect the media to bring positive social change and development in Zambia. Currently, the media cannot be said to be useful in promoting social change and development because of the way it has been abused by politicians. Therefore, the future of Zambian media can be more progressive and meaningful only if the media’s power is properly harnessed and used in a professional manner.

It has been rightly observed that objectivity calls for journalists to develop a consistent method of testing information – a transparent approach to evidence – precisely so that personal, cultural and political biases would not undermine the accuracy of media work. David Brooks a columnist for the New York Times in his article, Objectivity in Journalism (2006) observes that the real core of journalism is objectivity seeing the truth whole and being fair about it. Thus, this aspect is significant for journalists in Zambia. If objectivity in a fair sense is properly observed and applied, can help the media work according to its mandate and bring positive social change and development.

It’s possible that the media if properly used can persuade strong values to transform Zambia’s society from what it is now to a more just, fair and progressive society.

 ---------------------------------------------------------

References

  1. 21st Century Communication: A Reference Handbook.
  2. Public Perception of Media Bias by Daniel Quackenbush- A Meta-Analysis of American Media Outlets During the 2012 Presidential Election
  3. Freedom House Report 2016 - Zambia
  4. IREX Media Susatinability Index 2008 - Zambia
  5. David Brooks. Objectivity in Journalism. Imprimis 35, no. 1 (January 2006): 6-7

As with all of the blogs posted on our website, the content above does not imply the endorsement of The CI or its Partners and is from the perspective of the writer alone. We do not check facts and strive to retain the writer's voice, as is detailed in our Editorial Policy. Image credit: IREX