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“Shikapwasha’s Dogs”: Why the Public Media in Zambia Has Lost the People’s Trust

By Malama Katulwende

Malama Katulwende

In the recent past Mumbi Phiri, an opposition Member of Parliament referred to journalists in the public media in Zambia as “Ronnie Shikapwasha’s dogs”.  This reference to Ronnie Shikapwasha, a top government official who rants like a dictator, and specifically to an animal, did, in fact, cause so much anger and disquietude that some public media practitioners were impelled to stage a peaceful protest against the parliamentarian.

In terms of the local, cultural discourses and social logics, the “dog-remark” signified a disparagement in which a human being was likened to a creature of the wild — defined both by base instincts and low intelligence.  Perhaps for this reason, the media persons who took part in the demonstration were justified to denounce the opposition leader and even show their annoyance against her by petitioning the speaker of the National Assembly, Mr. Amusa Mwanamwamba, to chastise Mrs. Phiri by way of parliamentary procedure.

For the purposes of this article – and indeed for my own part – however, I shall not dwell on the emotive aspect of this event – their calling her a “dog” even though this was the reason for their anger, nor indeed refer to a deluge of other fetid remarks which the incensed journalists directed at Mumbi Phiri.

On the contrary, I have decided to focus on a different logical plane, albeit a controversial one. The perspective is that stripped of its derogatory overtones, Phiri’s analogy still stands valid today. Indeed, “journalists in the public media are Ronnie Shikapwasha’s dogs.”  Just as a normal dog would usually act in line with what its master instructed it to do, so would members of the public media in Zambia do as they were bidden by politicians in the ruling party – even when such instructions were contrary to the statutory framework on which their institution was founded. In this sense, therefore, it may be argued that the public media in Zambia was merely a tool for the preservation of the privileges and status quo of politicians and their supporters in the ruling party.

Mumbi Phiri - MP

To illustrate the validity of what I might now refer to as “the Phirian analogy,” therefore, I shall first briefly outline the media statutory framework in the context of the ZNBC Act. I shall quote Prof. Fackson Banda, whom I regard very highly on media issues, to illustrate what the roles of the media actually are. I shall provide some instances to show how politicians in Zambia have tended to use media platforms and spaces to consolidate their hold on power and even wield the public media against some individuals and institutions – often   regarded as enemies of the state – who are nonetheless in support of justice, good governance and the cause of the poor and the marginalized.

I shall also demonstrate why the majority of Zambians have lost trust in the public media and have now opted for alternative media such as the Post newspaper, Muvi Television and Mobi TV as “reliable sources” of news and information.

The public media in Zambia is founded on various acts of Parliament which provide for statutory framework under which the media in general should operate. I shall not discuss all these media bodies, individually, but only  indicate that in the case of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC)  Act number 20 of 2002 stipulates that the institution shall provide a balanced and varied programming to all sections of the public; serve the public interest; meet high professional standards; broadcast news and current affairs programs which are comprehensive, unbiased and  independent; and lastly provide commentary which shall be clearly distinguished from news.

“Public media” here refers specifically to the Times of Zambia, the Daily Mail, the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), the Zambia National Information Service (ZANIS) and other state owned and controlled media institutions.

The critical observation, however,  is to what extent  does ZNBC carry out its statutory obligation of providing  fair coverage of news and information for the consumption of all citizens regardless of their religious, political, social and tribal affiliation? How far does the broadcaster execute the interests of the nation-state in terms of its legal mandate?

By “interests of the nation-state” I do not imply the interests of the president, the information minister, supporters of the ruling party, or some high court judge alone. “Interests of the nation-state” here refers to the basic needs of Zambians who comprise more than seventy-three tribes.

These needs might, for example, range from honest reports on how their government was managing public funds, the speeches and activities of opposition political parties, the performance of the state in upholding justice and good governance, to the obligation of the leaders in contracting external debt. I am arguing within the paradigm that the citizens do not exist for the sake of the state, but the state for the sake of the citizens. The social contract for the creation of the state of Zambia, for example, was made possible by the existence of the people of Zambia who, if they so wished, might dissolve the state and constitute another.

In demonstrating the validity of the Phirian analogy, let me now first start by quoting Prof Fackson Banda who, in an article titled “Media and good governance: The way forward”, outlines the roles of the media as follows:

“The first such role is the provision of relevant knowledge and competencies. People must have access to reliable reports, portrayals, analyses, discussions, debates and so forth about current affairs…The second is inspiring loyalty to democratic values and procedures… The third role is highlighting the practices, routines, traditions that underpin good governance… And the fourth is to help in the construction of the identities of audiences, not as consumers, but as citizens. How we define citizenship is inseparable from how we define democracy and the good society. One can say that the formal status of citizenship conceptually frames much of political life in modern democracies. The media can do much to strengthen public perceptions of what it means to be a citizen in a democracy. The media can reinforce notions of participation, accountability, solidarity, tolerance, courage, community, etc. which define strong-democratic citizenship.”

The question we may now pose is whether the public medium in Zambia – such as the ZNBC – faithfully adheres to the ethos of its statutory obligations and the roles of the media as outlined above? To demonstrate that they do not always do so, let us quote – again at some length – Elijah Bwalya Mwewa Mutambanshiku’s PhD Thesis (2008), “Community Media versus Mass Media in Their Role of Promoting Development and Democracy among the Grass Roots in Zambia”.

Dr. Mutambanshiku narrates the firing of Godfrey Bwalya at the Daily Mail for reporting that the opposition leader, Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front was leading in the 28/09/06 presidential and parliamentary elections, in which the late president Dr. Levy Mwanawasa eventually emerged victorious. The stories were titled, ‘PF takes early lead’ and ‘Sata maintains lead’.

“The fact of the matter is that Michael Sata, the Presidential candidate belonging to an opposition political party, the Patriotic Front, was leading the elections the first two days of counting before the incumbent President, Levy Mwanawasa, of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, started leading. However, what has been demonstrated here is the presence of the agenda setting and gate-keeping theory. In both cases, the ruling class is supposed to take precedence and be given a favourable situation while the critics are supposed to be treated as social and political deviants. So given those theories at work, when the journalists tried to change the situation, the state did not hesitate to mete out punishment.”

Works and Supply Minister Mike Mulongoti

Dr. Mutambanshiku also quotes the Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Honourable Mike Mulongoti, who said on 11/0902007 in the Post:
“Journalists from the public media should not criticise the government and its leaders because they have jobs to protect, information minister Mike Mulongoti has said. […] Officiating at the fourth training programme of 25 journalists at The Post offices in Lusaka […], Mulongoti said journalists in the public media that want to criticise the government must apply for jobs where they can be allowed to exercise that freedom. ‘It will be extremely frightening to find the Times of Zambia attacking me. Will that be in order?’ Mulongoti asked. ‘But if The Post did that, all I can do is cry. I can’t threaten to fire Mr Malupenga (Post managing director) because his mandate is different. I can tell you, if I saw the Daily Mail and Times of Zambia attack the Vice-President…no, that is unacceptable. They can report facts about things that went wrong but they should not be seen to be attacking government. Journalists at Times and Daily also have wives and children, they have jobs to protect, don’t forget that. Before they write anything against me, they will think, ‘what will the minister do? Will I be in the office tomorrow?’ These are worries that come but we expect them to be factual and to report truthfully.”
“Mulongoti said although he never directed managing editors of the Times of Zambia and Zambia Daily Mail, they were required to exercise self-restraint in the stories they published. ‘They are not created to be critics of the government,’ he said. ‘If they think they want to exercise their freedom to write, they must apply for jobs where that freedom can be exercised. If you want to attack us don’t go to Daily Mail, I can assure you, the story will be killed.’ Mulongoti said public media were there to tell members of the public about government programmes and policies while the private media were expected to criticise the government.’

Dr. Mutambanshiku concludes: “By speaking like this, Mulongoti demonstrates how even after independence, the state media is not free to speak out against the government. The state media is only a public relations wing of the government and not a media that welcomes divergent views for the well being of the country and therefore enhance democracy and development…Thus … one can see how ZNBC and the two state-owned media focus their attention on government with very little attention for other people and worse still the less privileged people. The poor people are only an object that has to play one role: watch, listen, read and believe what government is saying and doing. There is development by top-down with its roots in hegemony, agenda setting and gate-keeping so that the widely heard voice is that of the government.”

Fr. Peter Henriot

This point has been severally articulated by Fr. Peter Henriot, Director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) in an article published in the Post newspaper titled, “What does media regulation mean?” He wrote:
“What has traditionally been called ‘The Fourth Estate,’ the media has historically played a key role in the development, vitality and preservation of democratic institutions. Anti-democratic forces have traditionally targeted the media in order to preserve their dictatorial rule.

“Because citizens get most of their information about what is happening around them in the country from the print and electronic media, capturing control of these instruments and regulating their output according to the orthodox positions of the government has always been a struggle.

“Historically notorious, of course, was Dr Joseph Goebbels, whose official title in Nazi Germany of the last century was “Minister of Propaganda and National Enlightenment.” He is famous for his advice given the ruling party: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”

“Of course, Goebbels’ advice only works if the government gains control over any free voices from the independent media. Without accusing the current ruling party and its government in Zambia of following the advice of Dr Goebbels, at least the point can be made about why current debates over statutory “media regulation” are so important for the future of democracy in Zambia.

“In one sense, we already do have clear examples of “media regulation” in Zambia in the operation of the State owned and the government controlled media – print and electronic. Let me cite three recent examples of what regulation appears to have meant for that media, and suggest why there is an understandable fear in the general public about what it might mean for the independent media.

“First, we have the almost humorous censorship of the national television station’s reporting of news. For instance, although ZNBC-TV is a public entity, and is supported by public taxes and license fees, its evening news appears regulated by instructions from “higher up.”

“Most of the reporting is about visits and statements by the Republican President and ministers and local ruling party officials. Rarely are opposition figures seen, and their names seem only to be mentioned in critical comments from the government officials. Civil society is seldom reported on, except in excerpts in which praise of the government can be found.

“Coverage of election campaigns appears to be routinely restricted to ruling party activities. For example, am I unfair to conjecture that there must have been some higher up orders not to allow the faces and names of opposition candidates to be shown on ZNBC-TV prior to the by-elections recently held in Solwezi?

“This even went so far as to announce only in a very much second place (outside of the headlined news of the day) the election of a PF-UPND Pact candidate. The victorious individual was not shown but an interview with a ruling party official was given prominence to explain that their election defeat was really nothing serious.

“A second example is seen almost every day in the two Government newspapers. The Daily Mail (“without fear and favor”) and The Times of Zambia (“forward with the nation”) will feature large portions of speeches of high government officials but report little or nothing of what others (opposition officials or civil society officials) might have said in response to the government “observations or positions. Responses are sometimes covered but not in a fair and balanced fashion.

“By contrast, The Post (“the paper that digs deeper”) will often print a much fuller text of the government and/or ruling party remarks and then give fair space for the views of others on the matter under discussion. In this way, democratic dialogue is fostered something which appears to be lacking – possibly by order from “higher up” in the government newspapers.

“Third, there is a recent example told me by a civil society group that had paid for a discussion program on national television on some public issue such as accountability. The invited panel for the non-partisan discussion included representatives from the government as well as civil society.

“But when the invited representative from a key ministry backed out of participation, the television station cancelled the show. Why? It was explained that programs that discussed the government activities must have a government spokesperson or they could not be shown. A form of regulation that invoked rather strict censorship!

“Now my reason for citing these three examples of “media regulation” shown in not unusual occurrences with the state owned and the government controlled media is to pose the question: is this what statutory “media regulation” might mean? A suppression of news and views that are not in accord with the wishes of the ruling party and its government?

“More examples might be cited, but for the moment we can at least ask whether statutory “media regulation” guided by the present government is going to enhance the media’s role in promoting democracy in Zambia. Will an official regulatory body be controlled by the ruling party and its government (which might, of course, be some other party after the 2011 elections!) and will we therefore expect to see more examples of “regulation” such as are mentioned above?

“Surely it is time for top government officials to come out more honestly and for leaders in the independent media to take more a more pro-active stance. Zambia’s democracy deserves better!”

In quoting these sources, let me also add that to the best of my knowledge, I have never witnessed any news item in the public media which tried to question the corrupt activities of the republican president, or some of his closest associates.  When the late president of Zambia, Dr. Levy Mwanasawasa, for example, led the fight against corruption by some top government officials, who included the former president Dr. F.T.J Chiluba, the state tabloids reported everything Mwanawasa said. Their lead-stories and opinions were framed in context of what the official government position was at that moment. They did not question, evaluate nor think through what was happening around them independently of what the incumbent leader, Dr. Mwanawasa, wanted them to do. Dumb as I might call them in this regard, the public media simply executed what they were instructed to do!

Ironically, however, when the new president, Mr. Rupiah Banda, assumed office in 2008, abandoning the fight against corruption and embracing Chiluba as a “damn good president”, the same state tabloids which had previously denounced Chiluba in Mwanawasa’s era changed positions and began to echo every word which the Banda administration pronounced, including championing the defense of the former leader. Shockingly, the tabloids started providing media spaces for Dr. Chiluba and attacked anyone who questioned Chiluba’s ‘acquittal’ and the government’s refusal to appeal against the judgment.

The privatization of Zamtel (in which the former minister of telecommunications, Dora Siliya, breached tender procedures by awarding a contract to RP Capital of Cayman Islands to evaluate the state-owned telecommunications company) , provides another case in point.  Standing on the fringes with their arms folded, the public media stayed mute and did not provide a voice on what was happening. They were no analyses, portrayals and debates of the facts on the ground even though their mandate was to serve the interests of the people of Zambia – and not politicians as such.  It was the Post newspaper, a privately-owned tabloid, on the other hand, which broke the news of this scam and engaged ordinary people in a fight against the fraud. The Post has since been proved correct; despite earlier denials by government officials and the incumbent president, Mr. Rupiah Banda, RP Capital was indeed involved in the privatization process from the beginning to the end.

Yet the fraudulent sale of a public asset by some leaders in government ought to have been a focus of intense debate, investigative reporting and analyses by the state media since one of their statutory roles is to promote and uphold the interests of the Zambian people. For me at least, therefore, it is this tragedy of the public media – the lack of courage to express their views as thinkers and as free citizens who understand their mandate – which makes the Phirian analogy correct: “The public media are Shikapwasha’s dogs.”

The Phirian analogy may also be demonstrated when we look at the role of the media in raising debate around the intricacies of the constitutional making process, the disregard of labor laws in Zambia by most Chinese companies, the reinstatement of the windfall tax by mining companies, pollution of underground air, water and the environment by effluents by the operation from the mines, the theft of donor funds by top civil servants, the causes of poverty and destitution nation-wide, the uneven income distribution patterns in the country, unplanned settlements in urban cities, lack of infrastructure development such as roads, universities, schools and hospitals, human rights challenges, climate change versus political will and, among other things,  the implementation of a policy framework on women as the centre of  the national development agenda.

I do wish to suggest that the public media in Zambia has never touched on these issues before. To be sure, their journalists have tried out these topics but only in terms of official voices of the government structure. They have written their stories in such a way that ministers and other elected state officials were the only ones allowed to construct cultural identities and ideologies of state and social memories.

If, for example, a state owned tabloid ran a headline about the pollution of Chifubu River by the Konkola Copper Mine (KCM), it would be because some minister in the government talked about it. The newspaper would not quote as a source the feelings of ordinary Chifubu residents, nor would they make simple people the centre of their narrative. The paper would write the story from the perspective of an individual minister regardless of whether what he said was true or false.

This disregard for deviating views in news presentation is   most evident on ZNBC news platform. From more than 3000 minutes or 50 hours of news per week the broadcaster has continued to allow the majority of the time-space to be dominated by speeches and announcements by the president, his government officials and supporters of the ruling party. There is very rarely anything by the opposition political parties and dissenting voices. This is what constitutes news content in Zambia.

However, in their 2005 research on the media perceptions by members of the public in Zambia, Panos Southern Africa discovered that Zambians generally have given a very low rating of the public media. This perhaps explains why most people shun reading government newspapers such as the Times of Zambia and the Daily Mail. In fact, I am reliably informed that the Post news paper has the largest circulation of about 40,000 copies per day, as compared to the Daily Mail and Times of Zambia which have a combined print run of not more than 15,000.

The Post usually sells like hot cakes, whereas the public tabloids would be very lucky to push sales above 3,000 copies per day. I also speak with absolute confidence as someone who has sold newspapers before: for every 100 copies of the Post sold on the street, one would be very lucky to sell 5 copies of the Times and the Daily Mail combined. People hate these papers. The “unsold” copies are over 90%.

The same pattern applies to television. Which Zambian has the time and patience to sit before the screen and watch Rupiah Banda and his party cadres peddling half-truths, lies and propaganda about the myth of economic boom, all year round?

People are not foolish. In microeconomics, when the price movements in goods and services occur, consumer behavior changes as people are compelled to choose other alternative goods and services which meet their needs. In the same way, the burden of watching the same things on ZNBC have often taught Zambians to switch to other alternative channels such as Muvi Television, Mobi Television or other foreign channels, or even switch off the T.V set altogether when ZNBC news comes up. In my family, we very rarely watch ZNBC because we have a low opinion of it. A sales man’s adage says: “Don’t sale what you want; sale what customers need.” Therefore, for as long as ZNBC shall continue to broadcast what people don’t want, their audiences shall continue to dwindle.

In a public discussion titled, “The Role of Zambia National Broadcasting Television (ZNBC) in meeting the Zambia’s news and information needs” that was organized by Misa Zambia on March 25, 2004 at the Pamodzi Hotel, Margaret Chimanse, President, Zambia Media Women’s Association warned that as long as what people wanted was not taken into account ZNBC would find it difficult to meet its role in providing news and information to Zambians.

“By virtue of it being a public broadcaster,” she said, “ZNBC has to provide an effective channel where interested people can send their views and complaints that should be taken seriously. This will help in building a consensus on issues and allow people to say what they want to see as news and information. After all, it is their institution.”

In saying all this, though, I do not mean to be unkind to all the men and women who work for the public media in Zambia – some of whom are close friends. I have perhaps been too critical – for which I offer my apologies. Yet I also wish to remind them that although the media exists in a political space dominated by political elites, the choice of a free media in Zambia lies squarely in their hands. A fettered media would even fail to guarantee the protection of their own rights, and that of their children, as free citizens. Let me again quote Prof. Banda who, in an article titled, “Media and the right to communicate” wrote:

“It is a moot point that the media plays a critical role in enhancing the enjoyment of basic human rights. At the same time, the media constitutes an important object of human rights violations. It is important, then, to remind ourselves of how the media can serve as a vehicle for human rights protection. This is important because the political elites – on both sides of the divide – need to understand that the media provide the public means through which the citizenry can communicate. As part of entrenching the role of the media in a democratic polity, we must recognize how media are intricately bound up with the right to communicate.

“Many of the rights and responsibilities that we must enjoy as citizens would, in the final analysis, seem to hinge on the right to communicate. Take for example, the following rights and responsibilities. How can we effectively vote in free, fair and regular elections, let alone examine the conduct of public officials, without quality and unbiased information?

“How can we hold office, let alone demand equal membership in the polity, without access to free and unfettered media? How can we petition our elected officials, let alone exercise our freedom of speech, media, political association and assembly, without keeping ourselves informed through the media. Indeed, how do we get civically educated without a robust media system that gives access to most public information?”

I have tried to demonstrate the validity of the Phirian analogy. Indeed, “journalists in the public media are Shikapwasha’s dogs”. This is so because most public media practitioners conform to the dictates of the political elites and other power groups who support the ruling party. Using the ZNBC, Daily Mail, Times of Zambia and other public media these power groups construct and fix the frames of reference for public media conversations and dialogues in terms of what they, and not the citizens, ultimately want. In spite of this scenario, the citizens have not been duped.

They have lost trust in the public media, alright, but they have also evolved ways of accessing news and information by choosing other media such as Muvi Television and the Post newspaper which they generally regard as secure and reliable.

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3 responses to ““Shikapwasha’s Dogs”: Why the Public Media in Zambia Has Lost the People’s Trust”

  1. ZAMBIANS ARE COMPELLED TO VOTE AS IT IS THEIR RIGHTS BUT THE PRESIDENT AND MPS ARE NOT ANSWERABLE TO THE PEOPLE WHO VOTE FOR THEM. PEOPLE CAN NOT TAKE THEM TO ACCOUNT OR THEY RISK THEIR JOBS LIVES AND COMPLETELY BE BLACK LISTED FOR ANY SUPPORT FROM THE GOVERNMENT BUT YET THEY PAY THE VIGILATES FOR VICIMIZING VOTERS. THE QUESTION OF WHICH PAPER IS SELLING DOES NO REALLY MATTERS , YES IS GOOD FOR WHO IS GOING TO INVEST, BUT WE WANT A TWO WAY THING PEOPLE VOTE LEADER AND IN RETURN LEADERS, SHOULD GIVE VOTERS THE RIGHT TO CONTEST IF THEY FEEL CHEATED WITHOUT BEING INTIMEDATED….MOST THESE MPS ARE RUNNING BUSINESES, AND WHOULD NOT LIKE ANYONE MESS UP WITH THEIR BUSINESES. SIMILLARY THE VOTERS FEEL MPS, BEING VOTED BY THEM IS THEIR BUSINESS,AND BELIEVE THE PRESIDENTAND MPS MUST WORK FOR WHAT THEY EARN OR RIS THIER WAGES WITHDRAWN.LET THE PAPERS THAT ARE INDEPENDENT TAKE UP THE CHALLENGE TO RECORD THE POST PROMISES OF MPS AND WHAT THEY ARE SAYING NOW, IF THEY ARE NOT STICKING TO THEIR EARLIER PROMISES.NEWS PAPERS SHOULD EXPLAIN TO THE VOTERS SO THAT THEY CAN PUNISH FAILING LEADERS IN THE COMING ELECTION,WERE POSSIBLE TAKE THE CONCERNED LEADER TO COURT IF THEY CANT KEEP THE PROMISE. TAX PAYER’S MONEY HAS BEEN WASTED MANY TIMES TO A MEND LAWS TO SUIT INCURBANT LEADERS THAN THE WISH OF THE PEOPLE AND THE TREND WILL CONTINUE FOR MANY YEARS TO COME IF THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY DOES NOT COME TO THE PEOPLES AID. THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY SHOULD STOP FUNDING ZAMBIA UNTIL THE WISH AND THE ASPIRATION OF THE PEOPLE IS DEALT WITH. I JUST CANNOT TRUST THE CROP OF LEADERS ,THEY COULD DO THE SAME. ITS JUST HARD TO HOME MANY SPICES OF CAMELEONES ARE UP THERE…HELP ME GOD TO….THIS IS WHY I TURN TO YOU THE INTERNATION COMMUNITY.PLEASE DONT LISTEN TO THEM WITH THE SOVERINITY WORD .PEOPLE OF ZAMBIA WILL ALWAYS THANK YOU FOR IT. ITS NOT ABOUT PEACE PEOPLE HAVE LOST HOPE AND LEAVE IN FEAR OF LIVING IN ISOLATION.MANY WILL NOT COMMENT ON THIS FOR I KNOW OF THIS SAME FEAR….ZAMBIA NEED HELP FOR PEOPLE TO RE GAIN COFINDENCE OR THEY WILL TALK ABOUT PEACE WITHOUT DEVELOMENT.THE WAY I UNDERSTAND WERE THERE IS PEACE DEVELOPMENT AND CONDITION OF LIFE FOR PEOPLE IS GOOD AND EVERY CHILD HAS THE RIGHT TO GO TO SCHOOL.

  2. PaulineSongiso says:

    Food for thot. Thanx 4 the piece.

  3. Mwale, DAVID says:

    Surely, ZNBC, Times of Zambia and other public media can do a better job than serving the government of the Day.

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