ANALYSIS: MTHONISWA BANDA
THE media in Zambia once again converged on the Golden Peacock Hotel in Lusaka on November 29, 2019 for the second media insaka, whose sole purpose was to collectively study the proposed bill and adopt it.
The proposed media bill will usher in a new era of statutory media self-regulation thereby graduating the Zambian media from self-regulation to being regulated using an Act of Parliament. This also graduates the media from the current status quo of journalists running their own affairs willy-nilly under whatever theories of press freedom to complying with the guidelines set up by the new Act of Parliament.
The statutory self-regulation bill proposes to change that by setting up the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC) as a regulator and supervisor of the media sector.
The over 200 delegates drawn from community media, mainstream private and state media and other media stakeholders adopted the Media Bill presented to the meeting by Felistus Chipako of the Technical Working Group of the Media Liaison Committee.
To ensure all parts of the proposed media bill were accepted, Ms Chipako read aloud page by page, chapter by chapter and paragraph by paragraph, only pausing to listen to queries and suggested changes to the contents of the bill on that particular section. This method ensured all delegates followed through the proceedings and read every section of the proposed media bill to avoid queries arising after the meeting.
In a statement at the end of the insaka signed by Ernest Chanda, chairperson of the Technical Working Group, chairperson and Enock Ngoma, chairperson of the Media Liaison Committee, it said, “with this adoption, we assure the members of the public that unprofessionalism in the media which has been at the centre of public concern will be addressed once the bill is enacted into law as the bill creates an opportunity for public redress, rights to reply and correction of erring journalists and or media houses”.
The statement continues, “the bill is also part of the quest to get rid of the individuals masquerading as journalists within the profession. Time is up for the quack journalists and masqueraders who have dented our much-cherished profession with impunity.”
Mr Chanda appealed to members of the public to take keen interest in the statutory media self-regulation process started by the media fraternity and they should study the proposed bill so they too appreciate the efforts being made by the media sector to improve itself by addressing concerns from the public.
Despite the media bill being adopted unanimously, the meeting was not without any controversy and heated moments.
One such moment was when it came to the definition of who a journalist or media practitioner is.
According to the proposed media bill, a journalist is “any person who collects, edits, presents news or news articles in newspapers, magazines, radio, television and online media”. Some delegates at the insaka felt that for the media sector to be improved and performance enhanced, there is need to place minimum qualification for one to be a journalist. They felt that unprofessionalism can be cured by having all journalists trained and hence every journalist needs to be trained in basic media writing, ethics and journalism as a minimum yardstick.
However, these delegates could not convince their colleagues on what form of education can be said to be the accepted minimum training and where that kind of training could be procured since Zambia had no standardised media training among the numerous colleges and universities offering media and journalism studies. The insaka also noted that the sector to be affected mostly by this minimum training will be the community media sector where many community radio stations are being manned by untrained journalists, many of whom are school-leavers while the others are retired teachers, nurses and other professions interested in media issues and or issues of development being discussed on radio. There were also reminders that freedom of the press is derived from the rights of citizens to free expression, freedom to share and receive opinions and therefore could not be abridged by the media. Citizens will always demand for free speech and expression with or without the media laws.
Another area of contention was whether journalists had options to belong to this statutory media self-regulatory mechanism or not. According to the proposed bill, all media houses and journalists will upon the signing of the bill into law be expected to accredit themselves with ZAMEC. They are also expected to comply with the code of ethics developed and approved by the media themselves at the AGM. There will not be an option of opting out and those not accredited will not be allowed to function as journalists.
The proposed bill seeks to also harmonise the media regulation environment by being the sole regulator of media content in Zambia by setting of standards for programmes, news, discussions and the general professional behaviour of journalists in their line of work. This entails taking away the aspect of regulation of the broadcast sector from the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), regulating of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) and newspapers and setting standards of ethical conduct by online journalists and bloggers.
If this comes to pass, the IBA will be in charge of licensing while media professionalism and the journalism part will be handled by ZAMEC, including complaints and sanction of journalists.
The media bill proposes to set up an office of the media ombudsman who will be tasked with hearing complaints from the members of the public on the conduct of the media and their media products. Members of the public aggrieved by a news programme, a certain radio programme or article will be expected to complain to ZAMEC through the Media Ombudsman who with his team of experts and respected community members will summon the erring media house and journalists and aggrieved member of the public. A verdict passed by the Ombudsman on the media will be binding and if the matter is found to be serious, the Ombudsman might fine the erring media houses and subject them to further training while asking them to publicly apologise to the aggrieved. With such a mechanism, erring journalists will be corrected, and aggrieved members of the public attended too as quickly as possible. It also reduced the need for litigation in the courts of law.
“As media practitioners, we shall remain resolute towards promoting professionalism, media freedom and are determined to regain lost public confidence. We stand ready to work closely with the Ministry of information and Broadcasting Services in the process of enacting this bill into law,” said Mr Ernest Chanda, chairperson of the Technical Working Group.
The author is a media and public relations consultant.
ANALYSIS: MTHONISWA BANDA