By Sycorax Tiyesa Ndhlovu
Because of the way some media houses practice journalism, our country seems to have now reached a crescendo on whether government should regulate journalism practice or not. The catalyst to the need for government media regulation in Zambia is the perceived biased and malicious news reporting; and promoting of hate speech in our society.
And in the recent past, Press Association of Zambia president, Andrew Sakala warned media houses to report objectively; and avoid malicious reporting to sustain journalism integrity in our country.
But biased and malicious reporting; and promotion of hate speech have heightened in some news media organisations in our society nowadays.
Journalism as a fourth estate plays a critical role in democracy and development. It is a lubricant for smooth and effective operation of democratic dispensation in any democratic society. Dennis McQuail in ‘Mass Communication Theory’ stresses that the press is a public sphere where various; and sometimes opposing views are at play for public consumption to fulfill their right to know in determining their own destiny.
This is highly possible where journalism plays its watchdog role against some government leaders’ high propensity to abuse authority of office entrust to them. It is also highly possible where the news media houses and their respective reporters are ethical and highly responsible to the society they serve. Professional journalism bodies facilitate such professional journalism practice in such societies.
At the beginning of the book ‘Ethical issues in journalism and the news media’, Andrew Belsey and Ruth Chadwick(1992) argue that, in fact, ethics is inseparable from journalism practice because its practice is centred on a set of essentially ethical concepts: freedom, democracy, truth, objectivity, honesty and privacy among others. Such concepts are critical to journalism practice to maintain the quality of information the public receives all times.
Ethical and responsible journalism practice provides adequate checks and balances to the sitting government. In Zambia, this hasn’t been the case in some media houses. Some media houses have been unethical and irresponsible!
Surprisingly, ‘Undue restriction: Laws impacting on media freedom in the SADC’ states that though the Zambian constitution expressly guarantees freedom of the media and in much stronger terms than several other SADC countries, the limitation clauses in the constitution coupled with other legislation render much of this freedom meaningless (p.103). This means that Zambia already has many restrictive laws on press freedom.
It is against such a background that Former United States president, Thomas Jefferson said: ‘If it was left to me to decide on whether to have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I wouldn’t hesitate to choose the latter.’
Jefferson’s statement comes in the wake that journalism has always been one of the pillars in the promotion of good governance which facilitates sustainable development processes. But such a statement can be qualified in a society where journalism practice is ethical and adheres to professional code of conduct.
It is against this background that Andrew Belsey and Ruth Chadwick(1992:1) state that journalism is an honourable profession; though many of those who should care for it, often including own professionals, have dishonoured it. Some media houses have dishonoured journalism in Zambia.
Despite such a situation, considering the role of the ethical and responsible press in democracy and development, journalism practice has not been subjected to government regulation; but has always been advised to regulate itself through ethical and responsible reporting where journalism professional bodies are watchdogs to ensure that the honourary journalism profession sustains its role and integrity in governance and development processes. This is achieved through such professional bodies censoring and disciplining erring journalists and news media organisations.
While Zambia has always experienced some pockets of unethical journalism practice, no sooner did former president, late Michael Sata pass away than unprofessional journalism practice worsened in this country.
Difficult as it might be to conclusively debate what is ethical journalism and what is not, in some cases, it becomes clear both to professional journalists and to the novice in such a noble professional that a certain reporter or news media organisation or some circles of the journalism fraternity is or are unethical.
Biased and unjustifiable reporting against some government leaders or against some members of public perceived to be not friendly to some journalism practitioners or to some news media organisations has become common on a daily basis.
Amidst numerous restrictive legislation, how can reporters be conducting their duties unethically? Is it the same extreme unethical journalism practice that forced previous regimes to enact such laws against press freedom in our country? Are the same laws ineffective in enforcement? Is Zambian journalism inviting more laws against press freedom?
Den Eliot in ‘Responsible Journalism (in Eliot Eds, 1986: p.33-34) states that mass media has a responsibility to the society; no matter what society they may be operating in. Eliot continues to say this responsibility holds whether the media is private or public owned. This further implies that ethical and responsible journalism practice respects the morals and values of the society it serves. In short, ethical journalism is part of news media’s corporate social responsibility.
An Unfettered Press states that news reporting is generally non-partisan; and editorial opinion is based on the merits of an issue…This is because professional journalism serves public interest. It is done with responsibility. The news media houses and their reporters are supposed to be the cameras of society; and not actors in the fights in society.
Reflecting on the current biased, maligning and in some cases, unjustified reporting against President Edgar Lungu from some news media organisations and the high degree of promotion of hate speech in some media houses, recently, Information and Broadcasting minister, Chishimba Kambwili said government might be forced to regulate the media.
Hon Kambwili observed that government has no option; but regulating the media because media self-regulation has failed in our country; especially that Media Council of Zambia (MECOZ) is moribund.
What has accelerated the need to regulate the media in our country is heightened use of sarcastic language. Such an approach to journalism practice has also enhanced hate speech. In the process, such journalism practice has lead to fuelling tribalism; leading to tribal voting pattern in most elections. Generally, unethical journalism practice is working against our motto of ‘One Zambia; One Nation’; and in the process threatening the peace and stability Zambia has enjoyed for decades now.
Professional journalism is not a suicide bomb. A professional journalist cannot set ablaze a house in which he or she is living with many others; and kill oneself and many others in that house in the name of journalism practice.
A responsible journalist promotes peace and stability in a country; and not allowing some citizens to lose their legs and arms in the name of press freedom or fighting for such. Moreover, professional journalism practice is done within the confines of the laws of the land. Journalism practice that violates existing laws of the land commits criminal offence!
While one can argue against government regulating the news media in our country, one also wonders why MECOZ is quiet as unethical journalism practice worsens among some media houses. Is it that MECOZ doesn’t know what unethical journalism practice is? Does MECOZ have journalism profession code of conduct of its member organisations and individual reporters to check who is violating such professional ethics and code of conduct or not? As one seeks answers to such questions, it is easy for someone to argue that government should regulate the media in Zambia. However, doing so might not be beneficial for Zambia both in the short and long run.
Therefore, our government should refrain from resorting to government media regulation; and give more chance to MECOZ to rise to the occasion; and enhance professional journalism practice through media self-regulation in our country.
While doing this, government, any politician or any citizen who is hurt by whatever some reporters or news media organisations report can seek redress in the courts of law when need arises.
Not until media professional bodies start guiding journalists and their respective media houses; and the courts of law adjudicating slander and libel related cases accordingly shall we see ethical journalism practice in Zambia.
Therefore, in the absence of government directly regulating journalism, media houses and professional journalists execute their duties with one eye looking at media ethics and journalism profession code of conduct while another eye is checking the laws of the land. Failure to do this leads to trouble!
Therefore, only in extreme unethical journalism practice cases as Zambian case is drifting into can government directly regulate journalism practice.
The author is Journalism and Mass Communication trainer and practitioner.