Tuesday, August 07, 2007
Tuesday August 07, 2007 [04:00]
It is now manifestly clear that the Freedom of Information (FOI) bill will remain a pipedream for as long as politicians remain as lawmakers on behalf of our people. For the FOI to become law, members of parliament will have to enact that. However, it seems to us that these members of parliament who are supposed to be representatives of our people do not actually represent the people that gave them authority to sit in the National Assembly on their behalf.
We do not think it will be an exaggeration for us to say that three quarters of the time, these members of parliament either represent their own interests or those of their various political parties. They do not represent genuine people’s interests.
We have no difficulties understanding why this is the state of affairs. Politicians are always pre-occupied with self-preservation. That is why it has been difficult for us as a country to make progress in the media law reforms because these politicians are well aware of the influential role the media can play in the enhancement and promotion of democracy and good governance.
Politicians from both the ruling and opposition political parties have, for a long time now, been dragging their feet in ensuring that the FOI materialises into law. That is why at every turn, these politicians do not restrain themselves from misleading members of the public that FOI is meant to benefit journalists alone. We have said many times before that this law is designed to give journalists and members of the general public access to information that is unnecessarily shielded or hidden by those in authority for selfish reasons.
FOI is not designed to give journalists excess power in seeking information. It is not even exclusive to the media personnel. It is meant to enable anyone seeking that information from government ministries and departments, or indeed any other public institution to do so without being blocked. And this information is not necessarily for the purpose of media use.
But because politicians are sometimes even afraid of their own shadows, they have always opposed the enactment of FOI because they think they can one day become victims of the new law when the media digs deeper into some of their activities. So they want to insulate themselves from such possibilities by making sure that the FOI does not come into existence. That’s why our politicians are everyday coming up with all sorts of compromising conditions if the FOI is to be turned into law.
It is not surprising, therefore, that even Michael Sata who is very familiar with the operations of the media can today champion a vanity cause that the FOI should not only allow journalists access to information but should also oblige them to disclose their sources of information. This is where the difference is between the media practitioners who are pushing for the FOI and the politicians who are to enact it.
The media people, realising that they are not the only beneficiaries of this law, want to look at a bigger picture for the benefit of the public. But our politicians are looking at how they will be affected personally, without looking at the general public good that this law will bring to bear on our society.
Because some coward Patriotic Front member of parliament went on Yatsani Radio to castigate his dictatorial tendencies, real or perceived, without disclosing his names, Sata suddenly feels that journalists should be compelled by law to disclose their sources of information. In saying this, Sata is only guided by his personal interest in the matter. He is oblivious, unconscious or insensible to the ethical requirement that journalists should not disclose their sources of information when there is need to do so.
As a result of personal interest, Sata has forgotten that on a number of occasions, he has given us information off the record. Is he now saying that each time he gives us such information, it will be all right for anyone to use the law to compel us to disclose that it was in fact him who gave us the information? If it is normal that every source of information should be known, why does Sata sometimes prefer to speak off the record?
It is true that our ethics as journalists do not allow us to disclose certain sources of information, especially if doing so might endanger their lives or even jobs. But there is an exception to every rule. This ethical requirement was made in good faith. It is meant to protect genuine news sources releasing information in the interest of the public and for public good. Sources who want to malign other people whilst hiding behind this ethical requirement are not to be supported. Sources who want to tell lies about other people whilst hiding behind this ethical requirement are not to be protected.
And we demonstrated this exception to the rule sometime last year when we exposed this same Sata as the man who gave us a forged letter alleging something against President Levy Mwanawasa. We did this because we realised that Sata must have known that the letter was forged at the time he was passing it to us. So we went against our ethical requirement just to demonstrate that wrongdoers are not to be protected under this noble ethical requirement seeking to protect genuine sources of information. Of course, we also acknowledged our own share of the blame in this because there was a lapse in our verification process.
We are saying all this just to illustrate that most of the fears expressed by our politicians concerning media law reforms are irrational. It is said that freedom comes with responsibility. We do not think that journalists, or indeed other people, would want to abuse their freedom.
But when that abuse occurs, as it is likely to be sometimes since we are all imperfect, there should be a way to deal with that. When all the law compels journalists to disclose their sources of information, then we are likely to experience a ‘draught’ of news because all sources will be endangered.
If today we report, using our sources, that a Zimbabwean top cop was shot dead at Lusaka’s Pamodzi Hotel when the Inspector General of Police is saying that the police officer died of natural causes, what will stop the Inspector General of Police from using the law to compel us to disclose our sources so that he can victimise them for saying the truth?
These are the issues that Sata and many others who say things without deep reflection should look at before they attempt to mislead the public. We have a country to serve, not individuals and their selfish agendas.