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Online media: Blessing or curse?

DURING the commemoration of this year’s World Press Freedom Day on Monday in Lusaka, Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Chishimba Kambwili did not hide the government’s frustration with the online media.
“As government, we do not dispute the fact that if well used, online publishing, otherwise known as ‘citizen journalism’, can be a useful platform for gathering and disseminating news.
“But our concern is that some online publishers have remained a secretive society and refused to accept and abide by the same ethical standards that guide the rest of the media industry,” Mr Kambwili said.
The theme for this year’s commemoration was ‘Media and Gender Equality in the Digital Age’.
The day, which falls on May 3 of each year, is dedicated to journalists around the world for their critical role in informing, educating and entertaining society.
The media fraternity also remembers their colleagues around the world who perish or are maimed during their call of duty and reflect on the past, present and future of the journalism profession.
Going by recent trends where some online publications have openly exhibited unprofessional journalism, abuse of this category of media was among the prominent concerns during the commemoration.
Online publications involve the use of social media platforms such as electronic newspapers, Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr (pronounced tumbler) and Facebook to instantly disseminate information to masses with access to internet.
Mr Kambwili said it is disappointing that some online media outlets have “elected to abuse the conductive media environment Government has created by pursuing private agendas.
He said the high levels of unethical and unprofessional conduct under the pretext of press freedom observed on some online media platforms border on utter criminality.
Mr Kambwili said some online publications have allegedly turned the platforms into vehicles for insulting and defaming innocent citizens without being liable as they have no traceable reference.
He said the trend is unprofessional and unacceptable.
“It is, therefore, Government’s expectation that using such platforms such as WPFD, genuine and professional media practitioners in the country will not only come up with workable interventions, but also send a strong warning to perpetrators of insults in the online media to desist from this practice as it is detrimental to the growth of the media industry,” he said.
Mr Kambwili urged online media to use the internet to fight social ills such as gender, based violence, among others, as opposed to using it to insult, defame and malign other people.
He said this year’s theme is appropriate and consistent with Government’s commitment to the promotion of the growth of an independent, free and professional media that can contribute meaningfully to the gender agenda for sustainable social and economic development.
The theme, Mr Kambwili said, also underscores the role the media plays in bridging the gender imbalances in society through the responsible use of contemporary advances in digital communication technology.
“Online newspapers and blogs on the other hand have transformed the distribution of news from the usually slow traditional media to fast new media that allows our people to receive news in real time. Citizens are able to receive news as it happens using the mobile phone.
“A mobile phone has become the greatest tool of communication for our people because it doesn’t matter where you are, as long as you have a smart phone you are able to read online news, listen to the radio or watch television,” Mr Kambwili pointed out.
Although regarded as a ‘blessing’, online media in another measure is considered as a ‘curse’ because it can expose users to raw and unverified news devoid of journalistic standards.
This is compounded by the ‘journalism instinct’ of scooping stories and wanting to be the first to break the news.
United Nations resident co-ordinator Janet Rogan noted that digital technologies have fundamentally altered the nature and function of media in societies.
“Today, the new media including social media, blogs, online platforms and web portals, give individuals the ability to express themselves and interact online to report things happening around them, exchange views and influence policy decisions,” Ms Rogan said.
Over seven million people across the world expressed their priorities for future sustainable development during the post-2015 consultations in 2013 and 2014 according to the UN.
Ms Rogan observed that they were able to do so owing to innovations in digital technology and reinvention of the media over the last decade.
She pointed out that thousands of bloggers in different parts of the world are posting stories and opinions online on politics, entertainment, development and adventure, people and societies among others.
“Thousands of others are uploading their unique video-clips to express, to influence and to generate ideas.
“Many others are reaching out to people online to raise funds in support of victims of humanitarian crisis in many parts of the world or to crowd-source investment for an entrepreneurial project,” Ms Rogan notes.
She also acknowledges that while online media has ‘birthed’ a new and convenient era of accessing and disseminating information, it also presents its flipside prompting some fears in society.
She indicated that some people fear online freedom and want to censor or control it as it has given rise to crime, libel and identity theft among other unorthodox practices.
“It is true that online crime, such as identity theft, has risen and that terrorist groups have used the internet to organise themselves and disseminate their propaganda.
“And at a lower level, some internet blogs are libellous and depend on gossip and innuendos for their popularity and anonymity for their survival. But in each case, what is wrong and should be acted against and countered is their intent and criminal activities and not internet itself,” Ms Rogan affirmed.
After all is said and done, the reality is that development comes with its own challenges such as defamation and hate speech, which call for interventions to, for example, curb the emergence of online media abuse.

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