Saturday, November 15, 2008

The shortsightedness of our politicians

The shortsightedness of our politicians
Written by masa

The talk among our politicians of sorting out The Post and of increased regulation of the media reminds us of an old refrain that says human beings are the only animal who stubs their toe on the same stone twice.

This is especially so if that stone is the struggle for political power, so his having done so isn’t very important. Coming from the one party state just over 17 years ago, our politicians should understand better what it means not to have an independent media. We know that most of today’s politicians were not in politics under the one party state. And they were also not in politics in the early 1990s. So they may not know the difference. But good politicians always endeavour to delve into history.

The independent media, the free media doesn’t exist solely for the benefit of its staff and shareholders. It primarily exists for the benefit of society. Curbing press freedom will not only harm the media. It will much more so harm the same politicians who are today championing the enactment of anti-press laws. Life and time have their own way of equalising things.

There is so much blame being put on the media for what are clearly the inadequacies of our politicians. It is surprising that today at the forefront of campaigning against press freedom, and The Post in particular, are leaders of the opposition UPND. It is very easy to forget history. When the UPND started, it was only The Post that was really there for it and gave it extensive coverage that made the people of Zambia quickly know its leaders and its programmes or intentions. It is dishonest for the UPND not to recognise and accept its own problems that have led to its declining political stakes. Today the UPND is claiming that its poor performance in last month’s presidential election was because there was no media adequately covering it. They are claiming that while the state media was concentrating on Rupiah Banda and the MMD, The Post was exclusively covering Michael Sata and the Patriotic Front. This is not true.

Hakainde Hichilema received adequate coverage in The Post in line with the level of his political campaign. And what they are forgetting is that in 2006, The Post exclusively went for Sata and the Patriotic Front but they still outperformed UPND. Despite our consistent attacks for a number of weeks, Sata polled more votes than Hakainde and the Patriotic Front won more parliamentary seats than UPND.

For those with short memories, our attacks on Sata and Patriotic Front in 2006 were not because we hated him and his party. It was because he had embraced plunderers, his party had adopted parliamentary candidates who were facing corruption charges in our courts of law. Sata had even promised to drop all charges against them. Our position or stand on this issue needs no further disposition because it is well known. We have never been neutral, and we will never be neutral, between good and evil. Evil has to be denounced and punished.

In the last election, Rupiah and MMD took over all the wrong things Sata and the Patriotic Front were harangued for in 2006. As if this was not enough, they also took the tribal or regional issues that UPND had been in trouble for as a result of the tribal politics that had beset the party following the death of its leader, Anderson Mazoka.

But both UPND and the Patriotic Front seem to have learnt a lesson and stayed away from these issues in last month’s election. There was no tribal or regional campaign that Hakainde or Sata are known to have carried out in last month’s campaign. They also kept a safe distance from known corrupt elements and were not in any way involved in electoral bribery or corruption. And for this reason, we had no reason to attack them. All we could do was cover them while they themselves created the news by what they said and the size of their political rallies. We never told them what to say and we never created the size of their rallies. We merely covered them.
If it benefits UPND to get us sorted out, let them go ahead. If the grave of The Post will help nourish their political fortunes, let them take it to its grave quickly.

But from the experience of our own country and that of our neighbours, especially Zimbabwe, we are very sure that efforts to over-regulate the media, to stifle press freedom will not help promote and entrench democracy in this country. We are sure of one thing: the opposite will happen and tyranny will set in.

If our politicians have problems or irritations, and these may be many and legitimate, with The Post or the media in general, the solution is not to devise laws that will curb press freedom, but to broaden the level of public discourse so that citizens can better sift through the chaff of misinformation and rhetoric to find the kernels of truth.

One thing they must also ask themselves is why there have been very few newspapers in this country since 1890 when this country was first colonised by the British South African Company to date. It’s very easy to start a political party and to contest the elections. It doesn’t take much. But it takes many years and a lot of effort to set up a national newspaper. And this may explain why today we have very few newspapers in this country. It may be easy to destroy The Post but it will certainly be very difficult to replace it. It may be bad for some of our politicians to live with The Post, but it will certainly be worse for them to live without it or a meaningful replacement of it. We will be back to an environment that is totally dominated by the state-owned and government-controlled media. If it was that easy to set up newspapers, every political party in this country would today be running a newspaper. UNIP tried it and failed. And the MMD tried and they also failed. Why?
We have from time to time quoted the advice of Nelson Mandela on this issue and we will never get tired of repeating it: “A bad free press is preferable to a technically good subservient press. None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to even suggest faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. We should put the freedom of our press and media at the top of our priorities as a democracy. How the forces of democratic governance and a civil society interact is the challenge we face and have to work through as a continuing and dynamic process in our new democracy. There is an old saying that freedom and order are constantly in tension with one another in society. Order without freedom leads to totalitarianism. Freedom without order leads to anarchy. It is also said that societies recover quicker and more healthily from too much freedom than they do from totalitarianism” (Speech delivered at the 10th anniversary of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg, 2002).

It is said that every man or woman should have an undoubted right to lay what sentiments he or she pleases before the public; to forbid this, to curb this, to limit their capacity of doing so, is to destroy the freedom of the press; but if he or she publishes what is improper, mischievous, or illegal, he or she must take the consequences of his or her own temerity. And as things stand today, we have enough laws to deal with this. Our Penal Code is full of laws that deal with criminal defamation or libel. And our courts are able to deal with civil defamation and there is enough case law to help them in this.
So, what laws are our politicians going to enact over and above these? We hope they won’t come up with crazy laws that will make our country the laughing stock of the world and push us backwards on the scale of good governance. Again, we emphasise the fact that we are not seeking a favour from our politicians on this score. Let them go and enact whatever they want. It is not the staff of The Post that will suffer from such tyrannical laws; it is themselves who will suffer. And moreover, after they have done so, they should not in any way expect a rational person to invest in a newspaper, a radio or television station. Again, who will suffer?
Sometimes we wonder if our politicians are really serious and have the ability to think beyond their immediate political interests. We remember how some of our politicians, who are still there today, celebrated after passing the 1996 Constitution whose sole aim was to bar Dr Kenneth Kaunda from contesting the presidency. They danced and sang: “Kaunda alala, alala! Kaunda alala, alala…” Can they still today dance and sing the same song? They are busy trying to undo that same bad constitution of theirs but at such a great cost to the people of Zambia. This is how irresponsible our politicians, who claim to be responsible, can sometimes be. It therefore calls for eternal vigilance on the part of our people to ensure that they don’t do crazy things to satisfy their political expediencies of the moment. Look at the destruction Frederick Chiluba caused to this country in all sorts of ways, including daylight theft of public funds. And while this was happening, some of these same politicians were cheering him on, defending him whenever we exposed and denounced him. And they harassed us for doing so. Today, they are cheering and defending Rupiah. Tomorrow the same characters will be denouncing him – and it won’t be long. Let them say whatever they want against us. Let them legislate against the media in whichever way they want. Time will tell and time alone will tell. And it won’t be long before this happens.

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