By Gershom Ndhlovu
“Journalists at Times and Daily… have wives and children, they have jobs to protect, don’t forget that. Before they write anything against me, they will think, ‘what will the minister do? Will I be in the office tomorrow?’ These are worries that come but we expect them to be factual and to report truthfully. “They are not created to be critics of the government… If they think they want to exercise their freedom to write, they must apply for jobs where that freedom can be exercised. If you want to attack us don’t go to Daily Mail, I can assure you, the story will be killed,” Information Minister Mike Mulongoti is quoted to have said at a Post Newspaper function.
In 1990-1 when the word injunction gained currency in our everyday language, it was because the then Movement for Multi-Party Democracy pressure group interim committee’s legal eagle, Levy Mwanawasa filed and threatened to file more injunctions against the lopsided state-owned media which at the time, ignored the pressure group’s activities in favour of the ruling UNIP.
Strange as it may sound today, some of the senior civil servants and politicians now in government wore UNIP T-shirts as late as Election Day on 31 October 1991 and are today tightening the screws on the state-owned media in terms of covering the opposition and criticising the government.
It is very sad that Mulongoti, should, in this day and age, threaten state-owned media journalists with dismissal if they criticise the government even if its officials err in running the affairs of the nation and there are many errors in the governance of our beautiful country.
Is this the reason why government has been dragging its feet to legislate the Freedom of Information Bill which has dragged on for nearly a decade now?
From Mulongoti’s statement what immediately comes to mind is the case of his predecessor, Vernon Mwaanga, who misrepresented President Mwanawasa when he sent him as special envoy to Congo when he “assured” Katanga Province governor Moses Katumbi who is wanted in Zambia for alleged plunder that in fact it was the Zambian government that owed him money.
The state-owned print media tried by all means to cover up for Mwaanga, twisting facts and calling The Post all sorts of names for exposing “the mighty” VJ who was eventually swept aside with the overwhelming facts laid on the table by the private newspaper. Just recently, the MECOZ actually ruled that some state media houses made fools of themselves over the issue.
Only a few short years ago, the circulation of the two state-owned newspapers was pathetic to say the least, unless things have changed. I know for sure that one of the two government owned newspapers, if not both, sold less than 16,000 papers daily and the Sunday edition shot up to a measly 18,000 nation-wide.
With statements like Mulongoti’s, this is definitely driving circulation figures even lower as people do not want to read government gazette-sque publications that do not only lack analysis of issues, but do not give a voice to opposition politicians and critical NGOs.
One non-practising journalist friend, obviously disgusted after reading Mulongoti’s statement, wondered what excitement state media journalists derived when they woke up in the morning to report for work with such a millstone round their necks. I feel pity for former University of Zambia Mass Communication lecturer, Leonard Kantumoya who has left behind the freedom that obtains in the world of academia to operate in the realm where even a Kulima Tower MMD cadre dictates to you.
Well, maybe it pays to toe the MMD line especially now when a number of journalists have just been rewarded with appointments into the Diplomatic service. But, ultimately, it is the ordinary Zambian who places so much trust and faith in journalists whether from state or private media who is being short-changed by this kind of myopia in the approach to media issues.