By Gershom Ndhlovu
It is either Media Ethics Council of Zambia (MECOZ) members who are advocating statutory regulation of the media are not journalists, or they do not understand media history in Zambia and the rest of the world or they are simply government plants.
Firstly, I say they are not journalists because genuine scribes all over the world would never seek statutory control of their profession because where the state controls the media, even the little freedom that they enjoy is lost to bureaucrats who issue licences by denying them to those considered anti-establishment.
Genuine journalists in the Press Association of Zambia, Zambia Union of Journalists, Media Institute of Southern Africa, Post Freedom Committee and the Zambia Media Women’s Association have for the last 10 years or so been fighting for the enactment of laws such as the Freedom of Information Act, Independent Broadcasting Act and similar laws.
It will not be far-fetched for all journalists and citizens of goodwill to question the motive of a section of MECOZ membership who are calling for statutory media control if not for their immediate benefit.
When a majority of media practitioners met at Lusaka’s Andrews Motel in 1998 to formulate MECOZ, the idea was to avoid government control of the practice of journalism in Zambia. Ten years later, those ideals are still valid and it is a question that ought not to be raised at all.
Secondly, I say that they do not understand media history in Zambia in particular and the rest of the world in general. In Zambia just over a quarter of a century ago, visionary journalists like the late Patu Simoko, Charles Mando and a whole host of them, resisted intentions by the then UNIP government to introduce a Press Council Bill that was to radically change the way journalism was practised and it was not easy then.
Those journalists, some of them still alive, risked the wrath of the Kaunda regime which, strangely, gave in to the journalists’ demand for the bill to be withdrawn. For those who remember, that is how the Press Association of Zambia was born which was at the time when not even the Zambia Union of Journalists was in existence.
To understand how statutory control operates, one does not need to go far. Zimbabwe just across the Zambezi River should provide the example we need as to what extent legislated control deals with the media and related issues.
Zimbabwe’s Access to Information and Privacy Protection Act whose ominous acronym is AIPPA, has dealt a near-mortal blow to journalism and its practice in that country. Both local and foreign journalists are jailed willy-nilly for doing or trying to do their job. There are other laws such as the Broadcasting Act, Public Order and Security Act (POSA) as well as the law related to interception of communication which serious affect the way the media operate in Zimbabwe. As for POSA, a journalist can even be arrested for covering a procession deemed illegal!
Now, if this is what advocates of statutory control of the media want in Zambia, they are certainly sounding the death knell for the burgeoning media, albeit under difficult circumstances, in the country.
Thirdly, it would seem that the advocates of media control are government plants because senior government officials have always advocated statutory control to cage “wayward” newspapers and “misguided” journalists who always question government policies and expose the misdeeds of those in power.
In the last several years, it has not been uncommon for journalists to ingratiate themselves with people in the corridors of power not as sources for stories, but rather as the politicians’ agents to fight for positions or similar favours.
Some journalists have clearly been Intelligence operatives who have openly boasted of their connections with the “Red Brick” and it is not therefore surprising that those people are seemingly “winning” the government fight for controlling the media.
Freedom once lost, is difficult to regain. Once the MECOZ members who are calling for statutory control lose the little freedom they are enjoying today and tomorrow become victims of the same draconian law they want enacted, it will be very difficult for them to reverse the situation.
Today’s practising journalists should not only carry on the vision of the Patu Simokos and Charles Mandos who fought against the Press Council Bill then, they must ensure that government enacts media friendly laws rather than laws that will encumber the practising of journalism by future generations.
The position of MECOZ leadership of chairperson Sr. Rose Nyondo and executive secretary Beenwell Mwale has become untenable if they are truly part of those who want the state to control the media. If they are not aware of these resolutions, they are not in charge and they must, as a matter of principle, step aside.
Everyone in the country knows that President Levy Mwanawasa has been in hospital for over a month now, but it is sounds quite odd to read stories in which he is being quoted as having said this or that in a speech read for him by this or that government official.
Much as government officials want to maintain a façade that Mwanawasa is still in control of government, it surely is bad public relations on their part to attribute statements to a person who is most likely not aware about what is going on around him.
Reading the stories in which statements are attributed to Mwanawasa at first gives an impression it is an old story and then that he is back in office before it dawns on one that the man is still admitted to Percy Military Hospital in France.
There is something surreal about the stories when they appear in the newspapers quoting Mwanawasa. Surely, whoever is in charge in government should work out another way in which stories should be attributed rather than the way it is being done now.
The nation obviously appreciates the effort being done to try and make things look as normal as possible even as Mwanawasa undergoes treatment outside, but the state PR wheels are definitely spinning in the wrong direction.