Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

{October 17, 2011}   Pre-election Zambia: the rise and rise of “government says” media

The role that the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), Zambia Daily Mail and Times of Zambia played in the 12 plus months prior to the September 20 polls showed, like never before,  the depressingly mediocre state of what ought to be our public media.
The three categorically positioned themselves as mouth-pieces, tirelessly singing ruling party and government praises while simultaneously tearing down and demonising anyone that was considered a threat to MMD and Rupiah Banda’s ambitions of staying in power. The Patriotic Front’s Michael Sata was a particular favourite for the latter assignment.
The mandate of public media (of which Zambia has none) is to be inclusive and provide equitable space to divergent views. None of these three media can claim to have done that because they were, as always, a monopoly of the government and made little effort to conceal their biases. They openly prioritised MMD propaganda and other government serving interests over public interest. This led to a significant exclusion of non-MMD voices thereby hindering inclusive national debate. Newsworthiness was understood to mean any item – sensible or not (one way more often than the other) – that reminded the public why RB was no less than God’s own choice for Zambia!
There was no editorial and programming independence to talk about and it is fair to say these media were a mere extension of the MMD’s public relations wing. In the case of ZNBC, even content that would normally end up in some trash can due to legal, ethical and quality considerations made it on no less than prime time TV as long as it favoured team RB. Consider Chanda Chimba III’s ‘Stand up for Zambia’, a programme anchored on character assassination, defamation, mudslinging and plain hate speech. It was one of several blatant smear campaigns against Sata and those seen as his sympathisers. Chimba, who I remember as a broadcaster from as far back as my primary school years, accused his targets of satanism, homosexuality, brutishness and whatever else he thought would appal Zambia’s largely conservative population and consequently condemn these people to mass unpopularity and rejection. For an institution with so many members of staff, you would expect that at least one of them was aware of the ethical obligation the corporation had to give an opportunity to the named (read condemned) subjects in that programme to also be heard.
But clearly, ZNBC had no qualms about trashing ethics or presenting ‘news’ that would embarrass even an undergraduate journalism student with no work experience, if that’s what it took to build the MMD. We were made to endure ‘news sources’ who would not make it even as a filler on a college radio making headlines on our “national broadcaster” simply because they had “endorsed President Banda” for this and that or “area xyz has been declared a no go zone for opposition party xyz” or such kind of engineered and unconvincingly staged pronouncements.
The Times and Daily were equally outdoing themselves religiously practicing what has been referred to as ‘minister and sunshine’ journalism where the media are expected to be a praise singer solely focused on government officials “delivering development.”
The following stories on the front page of the Times of Monday September 5, 2011 give an idea how things were:
Headline: RB way ahead of Sata – Kavindele
2. Good agro policies will inspire us to vote for RB, say Kalomo farmers
3. RB to officiate at Itezhi-Tezhi power station at groundbreaking ceremony
4. Police warn of stern action against troublesome cadres (read PF cadres)
5. Stop maligning electoral process, PF told
6. Itezhi-tezhi receives 300 tonnes of maize
Add to these an editorial condemning the action of PF cadres in some or other place…
The Daily Mail of the same day led with “Kamwala residents boo Lubinda [PF parliamentary candidate]” and had other stories such as “Banda to launch power plant works” “RB, MMD ahead in campaigns” “GBM [PF candidate] campaign manager arrested” “House counsels Nkomeshya [Chieftainess who snubbed RB], other chiefs”.
The following day the Daily Mail had three stories on the cover “RB will win- Reuters” as bold headline, “Thandiwe [First Lady] welcomes State House clinic” “Rupiah appeals for votes, promises more hard work” Then a blurb “Honour forefathers, vote MMD, Namwala urged”.
And so the “government says” media carried on and on, ensuring that we heard “President Rupiah Banda…” more often than we heard our own names. MMD related “developmental news” was the only news worth reading or writing on unless of course there was a chance to make Sata unpopular. Remember the Sata homosexuality story? Of course you do, who could possibly forget such a generously reported story?! This was the story that was stretched to death with ‘fresh angles’ being found every day in the form of “xyz has joined citizens from all over the country in condemning Mr. Sata’s stance on homosexuality”, the following day the freshness of the angle would manifest in the different name of the source making the exact same call.
No really, you cannot fault these media’s exceptional efforts at constructing a pro MMD reality and engineering public consensus but eish what a disastrous misreading of their audience!
I think even a quick consideration of cultural theorist Stuart Hall’s encoding/ decoding model would have helped some of these media colleagues of mine explain to their MMD buddies that social positioning plays a role in people’s interpretation of media messages. You can’t confidently expect a reader/ viewer to agree with your hegemonic message of “unprecedented economic growth in the country” when they still live in abject poverty.
And no, you state media are no longer able to completely deprive people of alternative voices and realities by unfairly priviledging a particular (MMD=bliss) reality at the expense of all others. Social media has entered the playing field and sadly for you, your information monopoly days are well and truly over.


Lwanga, I like the flair with which you have authored this piece. I agree with you on the subject. The (public) media did not play a neutral act in the previous election and others in the past, perhaps. But you seem to be engulfed in a biased emotional condition. I work for the Times of Zambia, as you probably know and I know that you worked for the Post newspaper. I am sure you know how the Post newspaper operates. Why did you leave the Post and why have others left the newspaper lately? How many have succumbed to the so called clause four in the job contracts. You know what happens in our newspapers.
I do not want to discussion other small publications such as the Rainbow, Watchdog and others because they often come and go and some are usually funded by people we do not know or those we do not want to know.
My thoughts are that as public media, we have a greater responsibility to the public, whose resources fund our operations. But perhaps you ask when last the public media received a grant from the government? The virtue of being a public media is merely in the name and not in the provision of resources. For me, responsibility in journalism should not be measured in terms of public of private media or how much the public media milks from the government. A lot of people who cry about this public media hype are so ignorant about what they discuss and usually, they do so to peddle biased agenda.
Journalists carry the same amount of responsibility to the public, whether they are funded by the public or private resources. In any case, you must be aware that some private newspapers owe billions of kwacha to some of the government banks such as ZANACO. Is that money not the same public funding as that which should go to the public media?
For me, the problem is not in being public or private media. The contention is to have a responsible fraternity, where self regulation is done with responsibility and no government inteference in the affairs of the media.
The new regime has said many good things that promise to change the old dispensation and this has provided a ray of hope for many of us. I believe we have learnt lessons from the past and we can capitalise on the promises of our new leaders to set matters straight.
However, the onus on on individual journalist to have a change of perception and attitude because our house is not in order.
Thank you.

Lwanga Mwilu says:

Hello Richard, many apologies for such a late response. I do not know why a notification did not come through. You are right in pointing out my silence on the Post, it was intentional. As a privately owned newspaper, its agenda cannot be expected to wholly serve a public media mandate because strictly speaking private media have a profit motive. If I was going to include the Post in this particular post I would have had to bring in just about every other private media because how else would I justify its inclusion. I do not quite see your basis for the conclusion that I am “engulfed in a biased emotional condition”, but I will not deny you your own interpretation.
That said, I have raised enough concerns about the Post on other fora and I still do that as a number of people can confirm. I am aware of the financial strain under people in the public media operate which is why my focus was on angles and choice of stories and not necessarily the kind of stories. For example I was not complaining about why we the two papers do not a story from every single town in Zambia in every edition because I know cost does not allow such.
I am aware of how funding models of media affect editorial choices but as a journalist I cannot resign myself to that fact and say well since government funds them then they have no choice but to praise that same government. We have our own convictions as media workers which dictate as to whether we can work within a certain environment or not.
The solution, for public media at least, is to operate within structures that do not compel journalists to feel like they owe the government any praise. There should be distinction between journalists and party cadres and the government should not feel entitled to use professionals for the kind of horn blowing that we saw in the pre-election period.
Hon. Lubinda has promised us an environment that will allow professionalism and the best we can do as journalists, despite our different affiliations, is do our bit to ensure that it is delivered.
Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts, much appreciated.

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