ANALYSIS:The State of Private Media in Zambia

“The role of the media is twofold: on one hand, the media report and reflect on pressing issues and can help to question established concepts and ideas. On the other hand, they can be used for propaganda purposes and instead of revealing truths, try to cover things up and by this curtail people’s freedom and right to information” (Nora Kuusik, 2010). The above view, represents the state of the media in Zambia today.

When those involved in the business of propagating information to the public resort to telling half-truths, deliberately distort and ignore facts, give selective coverage based on self rather than public interest, the general public suffers a double tragedy.  People’s freedom and right to information and expression is tramped upon and public perception, opinion and participation is made on the basis of wrong information. The consequences of half-truths, distorted and ignored facts by the media are dire to society: social disintegration and disruption of relative peace may ensue.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 stands out as a good example of what happens when the media deliberately opts to become economical with the truth, turn a blind eye to   and distort facts. Prior to the genocide, the Hutu extremist used radio and newspapers to propagate seeds of hatred and violence against the Tutsi minority by distorting facts and peddling lies against the latter.

The Hutus also used the media to mobilize the militia, coordinate the killings and ensuring that their evil schemes were implemented religiously. The Hutu extremists succeeded in using the media to portray Tutsis as less humans who had no right to life and to live in Rwanda. While signs of hatred and violence became imminent, the mainstream international media turned a blind eye to the situation, reducing it to fight of two “tribes of African savages” killing each other just like they did in ancient times.

In the eyes of the international media, it was a non-consequential local matter. However, today the Rwandan genocide remains an indictment on the media fraternity as 100 000 lives were lost within 100 days of violence in Rwanda.  Could the media have done something differently to avert the ruthless massacre of innocent people?

When the PF formed government in 2011, this columnist and several other citizens warned that lack of clear economic policies by the PF regimes would hurt the Zambian economy in the long-term. Facts were there for anyone who cared to see; unplanned creation of districts, blotted cabinet, and massive investment into road and other infrastructure projects, massive borrowing and unstainable increments of civil servants salaries without stimulating the production side of our economy have resulted into what we see of the Zambian economy today.   Unfortunately, some media outfits saw it fit at the time to praise government on the so called “unprecedented development”. It was shocking how anyone could even defend clear economic mismanagement. Today, we still see some media outfits defending indefensible things such as government’s slackness on delivering a people driven constitution.

There is no doubt that independent media plays a decisive role in promoting the development, growth and sustainability of democracy in any given society. Zambia stands out as one of the countries in Africa where the private media, both traditional and social media has played a pivotal role in nurturing a democratic culture.

In some instances, private media in Zambia has a played a significant role in providing checks and balances to the government by exposing corruption and other evil vices pretreated by those in power and their patrons. Since the return to plural politics, private media has provided a platform for expression of divergent views which state owned media cannot accommodate. Unfortunately, the current trend developing among privately owned media suggest that there is heavy polarization of the media influenced by partisan and personal interest. The only voices given space are those in line with certain partisan objectives. The media in Zambia is guilty of two sins:  deliberately ignoring and distorting the facts. This is worrisome.

In an environment like Zambia where public media is subservient to the caprices of the ruling party and where citizen’s access to information is a privilege rather than a right, the role of independent private media is indispensable. The public heavily relies on the private media to provide accurate, factual and balanced information to enable citizens make informed decision on matters of public interest. Private media provides a source of views different from those of the ruling class whose prime aim is to stay in power at whatever cost including telling half-truths.  Can private media in Zambia today pride itself in being factual, impartial and accurate in their information dissemination to the public?

While media outfits should maintain independent editorial policy, they need to conform to acceptable social values that promote peace, harmony and human development. Media outfits have an obligation to remain factual and strive for accuracy as much they pursue their respective editorial policies. When media outfits fail to be factual and accurate, then their relevancy to society in general and democracy in particular is lost.  Society as we know it is a collection of divergent views and philosophies which the media should strive to cover even those views may not really be in agreement with their beliefs and convictions. It is sad to see media outfits being used to settle personal scores and advancing personal political aims at the expense of informing the public in a factual and accurate manner.

It is often said that the media does not need justification for its existence because its work and service to the community is a justification for its existence. This notion only holds when the media saves the common good of citizens in a given society. When the media is used as a propaganda outfit, its existence becomes inimical to social solidarity and values of co-existence.  The Zambian media today stands at a critical point to reflect on its mandate and duty to the general public. It stands at a point where its existence and relevance to the growth of democracy in Zambia is increasingly should be questioned. Who does the private media in Zambia serve?  Will the media in Zambia redeem itself from the quagmire of saving personal and partisan interests of its proprietors than fulfilling its core mandate of informing the public accurately and factually? The writing is on the wall, watch this space!

Nicholas Phiri.

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