Sunday, 15 March 2015

New Information PS Has Tough Job Ensuring “Responsible Journalism”

Newly appointed Information and Broadcasting Permanent Secretary, Godfrey Malama is, no doubt, a very experienced journalist who has served the media at the highest level—as chief executive of both the Zambia Daily Mail and the Times of Zambia.
Malama, to his credit, also served as a member of the Media Reform Committee that was set up by Dipak Patel as minister of information and broadcasting under President Frederick Chiluba’s MMD administration in the early 1990s.
It is my sincere hope that his statement just after being sworn in that he would ensure the media give out fair and balanced coverage of information to the public does not mean that he will go after the Zambian Watchdog, Zambia Reports and other citizen-driven media that Information Minister Chishimba Kambwili hasthreatened to shut down.
Just after being sworn in, Malama said: “Media needs to avoid glorifying trivial information that does not serve any purpose. The public and Government are looking to the media for a culture of responsible journalism.”
Malama undoubtedly comes from the “analogue media” background with an unbending “gatekeeping” hierarchy of news presentation where stories lacking certain ingredients—those lacking a pro-government slant in some cases—are spiked. What he forgets that digital media encompassing social and civic media has changed a lot in terms of news and information presentation.
Below is a write up I did for African Hadithi a while back on how everyone with a computer or internet enabled-gadget and connectivity, is a potential publisher:

I recently came across a write up entitled Concentration, Cross Ownership Threatening African Media by Charles Chisala, a Zambia Daily Mail Editor. In it, he raises important issues of media owners having multiple stakes in a number of media outlets thereby diluting competition and therefore editorial content at the expense of commercial interests.
Godfrey Malama as Times of Zambia Managing Director.
This, in my view, is a fair assessment but I feel that Mr Chisala and the people who attended the conference addressing this issue at a recent two-day workshop for media managers and owners on integrity and corruption in the media in Johannesburg, South Africa, organised by the African Media Initiative (AMI) and Fredrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) African Media Project (Fesmedia), are stuck in the “media as a fourth estate” paradigm.
This paradigm assumes that the media is an extension of the three wings of a normal government which are the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. As expected, these three wings of government provide checks and balances against each other and the media providing overarching checks and balances on the three government wings.


Undemocratic Governments

In the western world where this is theoretically true, governments are largely democratic and media ownership largely private-owned. Contrast this to most governments in developing countries which are largely undemocratic and the media largely state-owned or controlled. Already, the question of concentration and cross-ownership, especially for profit, falls away. Zambia itself is the best example of a government owning a bigger stake in the media. The Zambian government owns the Zambia Daily Mail, the Times of Zambia and the Zambia NationalBroadcasting Corporation and added to that, the Zambia News and Information Service (ZANIS), a newswire service.
On the other hand, the controlling hand of the government in the dispensation and, unfortunately, limitation of broadcasting licences and, added to that, the constant arresting and general harassment of private media personnel and withholding, or threats to withhold, advertising from private media is a well-known fact. Whether through ownership of media outlets, or controlling of licences of broadcasting houses and as holder of the bigger advertising carrot, the power of control ebbs away from the private owners of the media where they are owned by citizens, and from journalists, afraid of going to jail for performing their watchdog role. Inevitably, they become lapdogs at the beck and call of especially ruling party politicians.
So much about media ownership. Let me now address what some media theorists and I call the fifth estate, the growth of social media driven citizen media including Facebook and Twitter. Media observers know, for instance, the battles that the Zambian government has tried to fight with online media outlets like the Zambian Watchdog, Zambia Reports and various blogs that have mushroomed in the last seven to eight years.


Social And Citizen Media

To understand, even appreciate, how social media-driven citizen media operates, one must understand the evolution of what has now come to be called Web 2.0 which has fundamentally changed how people utilize information and communication technologies. This aspect of the web has basically given the power of publishing to anyone, and I mean anyone, with a computer — be it a desktop computer, a laptop, tablet or smartphone — publish stuff either on websites they control or have access to, their personal blog or social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter which are more widely used than the numerous others in existence.
In the past, for one to put across an opinion, they had to write a letter, usually in long hand, post it to a newspaper or broadcasting station and then wait for it to be published or read on air — and jump in triumph if that letter saw the light of day. Having worked for both a broadcasting house and a newspaper, I know that hundreds of these letters ended up in the litter bin.
Using a platform like Facebook, someone does not even need to understand HyperText Mark up Language (HTML) and the coding that goes with it. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg, all that has been reduced to a point where a user does not need anything other than the blank page before him to write and post stuff.
Apart from Facebook and similar platforms, using the web for those that want to be a bit technical, platforms like WordPress — and there are many of them — where you just have to sign up, running a website on which you can publish anything is as easy as ABC.
The usual argument for media and communication students has been that new technologies such as radio and television have failed to kill the newspaper and as such the internet and the world wide web will fail to kill newspapers, radio and television.

Convergence Theory

I agree with that argument and go further that in fact, the idea is not to kill analogue media in favour of digital media. On the contrary, the idea is to incorporate the existing media technologies reflected in the convergence theory where telephony, computer and media technologies are meeting making it difficult to tell where one technology ends and the other starts. For example, I can read a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch TV on an internet-enabled smartphone.
There is equally the argument of reachability — people questioning how many people in poorer societies have access to these technologies. One thing not in doubt is that Africa is the fastest growing mobile technology market meaning that in a few years from now, many people will be connected one way or the other.
While the internet may seem to be an easy out solution, it also has its problems. Governments can and do easily control the internet by cutting off the signal or block off popular websites.
In terms of ownership, the real winners will be those who will incorporate ownership of the internet platform, telephony networks and media production houses as one vertically integrated business. Owners of single units of these businesses will inevitably swallowed up by bigger players owning all of these — and it is already happening in the west.
[Photo credit: Times of Zambia]

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