Thursday, 1 October 2009


By Gershom Ndhlovu

I have just finished reading a book, Ethics For Journalists by Richard Keeble. This book recently caught my attention on Amazon, a website that among other things, sells books because of the threat of statutory regulation if journalists do not come up with a mechanism of self-regulation.

Having taken Media Laws and Ethics as part of my Mass Communication studies at the University of Zambia in the late 1980s, I felt I needed to refresh my understanding of ethics once again by reading this book.

As such, I do recommend that people on both sides of the argument, that is, those for statutory regulation and those against it, should read the book which has largely been written based on the UK media environment, but can, nevertheless, be applied on the Zambian media environment.

The Zambian media landscape is basically dichotomous between state-owned Zambia Daily Mail, Times of Zambia and ZNBC which are seen as compliant to the dictates of government and the ruling MMD, and the private media largely represented by the Post. It may seem though that statutory regulation is aimed at the Post with its patently anti-establishment stance of always exposing wrong doing in government.

After reading, Keeble’s book, I have realised that government officials and the statutory regulation lobby, do not clearly state what it is that the so-called recalcitrant media do not conform to in terms of ethics in the manner they report and write news.

Is it the mere fact that newspapers such as the Post will publish what the state controlled media would not publish such as the abuse of state resources? Do the Post and other private media invade people’s privacy? Is reporting corruption or perceived corruption in and outside government wrong? What is the best way of reporting and writing news?

These are some of the questions that need to be answered particularly by the statutory regulation lobby which should understand that journalists are not just thrown into the field without essential grounding in ethics during journalism training. The same ethics that journalists in public media learnt are the same ethics that private media journalists learnt during their training. It is the ownership and economic consideration that determine a media’s editorial direction.

Obviously, the Zambia Daily Mail, the Times of Zambia and ZNBC tend to echo the ruling MMD government’s line while the Post and other private media will tend to fill in the vacuum left by the government media and also for their need to maximise sells considering that they are not subsidised by the government.

But, as Keeble writes, “ethical inquiry is crucial for all media workers—and managers. It encourages journalists to examine their basic moral and political principles; their responsibilities and rights; their relationship to their employer and audience; their ultimate goals.”

One important ethos that I gleaned from Keeble’s book is that journalists need to pursue accuracy and truthfulness in their course of duty.

“Indeed, there is a strong ethical commitment among many journalists towards accuracy and truthfulness in their reporting. These are values stressed in codes of conduct throughout the world…,” he writes.

Media Ethics Council of Zambia (MECOZ), to which all state-owned media organizations but not the Post, are party to, states in its explanatory note of its role:

“The purpose of distributing news and informed opinion is to serve the general welfare [sic]. Journalists who use their professional status as representatives of the public for selfish or other unworthy motives violate a high trust.

“Journalists uphold the right to speak unpopular opinions and privilege to agree with the majority while at the same time respecting the will of the minority. A journalist shall at all times defend the principle of the freedom of the press in relation to the collection of information and the expression of comment and criticism....”

One of its 10 point code of ethics, MECOZ states that the public has the right to know the truth. Therefore, it says, journalists have a duty to report the truth either as representing objective reality or representing what the source says fairly, accurately and objectively. Vice President George Kunda recently gave media organisations representatives an ultimatum to present to government a framework of their proposed self-regulation, failure to which would force government to enact its draft law to regulate the media.

But most tellingly, was parliamentary chief whip Vernon Mwaanga’s statement recently that the media had lost his support and that once the bill to regulate the media was introduced in parliament, he would support it.

Mwaanga, a former editor of the Times of Zambia, diplomat and minister of information is quoted to have said that it was sad that the media in Zambia had drifted away from upholding reporting ethics alleging that some journalists were irresponsible in their work and that regulating the media is the only way to stop such.

Mwaanga, who said that from the time he served as information minister, government had always advocated for self-regulation of the media but that the media seem to have failed to do so and it is for this reason he thinks that government should move in and assist in enacting a law that will allow the state to regulate the media.

In handling this issue, it is important to go back in history and bring out the fact that journalists in the early 1980s defeated manoeuvres by the then UNIP government to introduce a draconian media bill called the Press Council Bill which was to control the practice of journalism.

Most of the journalists of the time did not have the education that most of us are privileged to have—there are professors, PhD, Master’s and Bachelor’s degree holders and others who have branched into other disciplines such as law among us—and yet we seem more vulnerable now than the early journalists who withstood pressure from the UNIP government which did not easily tolerate dissent. The fight was no walk in the park either.

Among the current crop of MPs, there are people such as Zambezi West MP Charles Kakoma who was once managing editor of the Zambia Daily Mail and Mpika Central MP Mwansa Kapeya who was once a high ranking official at ZNBC who should resist the MMD government’s intention to pass legislation to regulate the media.

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