Friday, May 08, 2009

Putting one’s neck under the executioner’s ax

Putting one’s neck under the executioner’s ax
Written by Editor

Many things will have to change before a media council becomes a viable undertaking in Zambia. There are certain prerequisites that have to be met before it can be possible for every journalist and every media institution in this country to congregate under one media council.

For a media council to be viable, it has to be a product of a strategic coming together, and not a happenstance alliance, of all those who practice journalism in this country.

As things stand today, those behind the Media Council of Zambia (MECOZ) have only one institution in sight for disciplining, controlling, caging and humiliating. And that is The Post. All their talk centres around The Post. The anti-Post element is what seems to unite them under MECOZ and it is what has led to them into hiring themselves out to unscrupulous politicians to fix The Post. They are not concerned about the lack of editorial independence at the state-owned and government-controlled Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail and Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation.

Yet it’s a well-known fact that it is not possible for anyone to practice ethical journalism under conditions where one is not capable of taking independent decisions. It requires little intelligence – if a little is all one has – to realise that journalists at these state-owned and government-controlled media institutions are working under a lot of negative pressure from politicians of the ruling MMD and its government. No honest person can deny this fact.

Ethical journalism requires that the journalist acts independently and in an honest manner. This is not possible even for the best of our journalists at the state-owned and government-controlled media institutions. But this doesn’t seem to worry the men and women behind MECOZ and their political backers.

One doesn’t need a microscope to see that the Zambian media is still heavily dominated by the state-owned and government-controlled institutions. Out of the three daily newspapers in the country, only one – The Post, is not under state ownership and government control. The other two – the Times of Zambia and Daily Mail, are owned by the state and controlled by the government. Equally, despite the proliferation of many small radio stations, the electronic media is still predominantly state owned and government controlled.

The impact of The Post actually distorts the numbers. It makes Zambia look as if it has a strong plural media when this is not the case. Imagine Zambia’s media landscape would look like if The Post closed tomorrow! What private or independent media would be there for anyone to talk about?

What issues is the state owned and government-controlled media bringing out? What type of journalism are they practicing? For all the years our good friend and columnist Dr Kenneth Kaunda was in power, the state-owned media never questioned his decisions or actions. For the 10 years Frederick Chiluba was in power, not a single critical story, editorial comment or letter to the editor was ever published by any of these state owned newspapers. The same is true of the seven years Levy Mwanawasa was president. And the story will not change for Rupiah Banda.

All that had to be exposed was left squarely on the shoulders of The Post. Drug traffickers, corrupt elements and criminals of all hues had to be taken on by The Post. This in itself is enough to earn The Post many enemies. All these people going to jail today for corruption are in that position as a result of The Post’s work. And does anyone really expect these people to like The Post? And these were people with influence and connections. They are using everything at their disposal to attack The Post, to have a go at The Post in the hope that one day they will wake up and The Post is no more so that it can pay for what it has done to them.

The Post does not claim, and has never claimed, to have done everything perfectly well. Things don’t turn out perfectly even where one aims at getting things that way. But what can never be taken away from The Post is that it is an institution that carries out its duties with sufficient honesty, honour and integrity. The Post believes that it serves the cause of the people well to the extent to which it works well, to the extent to which it is sincere, to the extent to which it is honest. The Post has a lot of dignity and it is very sure of itself.

And this is a source of discomfort with The Post for many people. What they can never accept is The Post’s independence, integrity and honour. No one controls The Post apart from The Post itself. The Post’s employees make all the decisions concerning the paper’s operations. No decision is made elsewhere and thrust on The Post. As such, The Post takes full responsibility for its mistakes, and blames no one else. Not even the closest of The Post’s friends are able to tell it what to do. And they respect this. If ever they violated this principle, that would mark the end of the friendship. The Post doesn’t take directives to support this or oppose that cause or issue. It has a mission statement and editorial policy adopted in February 1991, five months before the newspaper was launched. And these are the ones that guide its operations. And the mission statement of The Post reads as follows:

“To produce the best quality newspaper in Zambia in order to exploit the gap in the market caused by the inadequacy of coverage of the existing press.

Our audience should embrace all readers, from a business executive to a taxi driver, who desire to be informed honestly and independently of events at home and abroad.

To achieve this and to ensure that we stay ahead of our competitors, we must strive to understand what it is that readers demand of a newspaper through conducting regular market research.

Our political role is to question the policies and actions of the authorities and all those who wield or aspire to wield social, economic and political power over the lives of ordinary people.

We shall aim to protect and promote the newly-emerging democratic political culture, in which the fundamental rights and freedoms of individuals are guaranteed, through campaigning on issues that arise from our own investigations, reporting and analysis.

To strive continually for higher editorial standards by closely monitoring the accuracy, balance, clarity and style of our reporting, whilst also improving on the paper's design and quality of reproduction. This demands freedom from interference, but openness to criticism and a commitment to the continuous training of our staff.

To achieve these goals, most especially the protection of our independence, we must ensure the commercial viability of the newspaper. Our management style must be participative. We must all be fully aware of the competing demands on financial and other resources and the commercial consequences of our actions.”

And The Post’s editorial policy reads as follows:

“We have a duty to maintain the highest professional and ethical standards and to defend at all times the freedom of the Press and other media to collect information and express comment and criticism.

We shall at all times strive for balance in the way we select, write and present news, bearing in mind that there are almost always different views on any issue and on the interpretation of events. We have a duty to expose our readers to different sides of the story.

We must as far as possible be accurate, fair and honest. We must not suppress, distort or censor news, unless by publication we endanger anyone's life and we must avoid the expression of comment and conjecture as established fact.

Confidential sources of information shall be protected.

We will not distort or suppress the truth because of advertising or other considerations, such as the personal interests of our directors or shareholders.

We shall only mention a person's race, colour, creed, illegitimacy, marital status or lack of it, gender or sexual orientation or political affiliation if this information is strictly relevant.

We shall rectify promptly any harmful inaccuracies, ensure that correction and apologies receive due prominence and afford the right of reply to persons criticised when the issue is of sufficient importance.”

These are The Post’s guiding principles from which it derives its distinctive competencies.

Right now, The Post is involved in a big battle to defend its existence from hostile elements who have declared a war on it and have vowed to see to it that it is obliterated. But the battle of The Post is not only a battle for survival. It is not just surviving for the sake of surviving, no. It is a battle to take part in the struggle for a better society, to participate in that struggle along with all our people.

It would be quite an accomplishment for them to defeat The Post, to destroy it, because at every turn The Post is there to expose and challenge the crimes of their league, a small newspaper that has demonstrated how much can be done with so few resources to become the country’s biggest media institution in terms of impact and resources, and its voice is always there. What would they not do to shut off The Post’s voice!

There are many questions to ask them and many things to denounce to help build the awareness we need and that the country needs, to find solutions that will not come about because anyone so wishes but because of our people’s need to survive. It is no longer the survival of The Post, or of a small newspaper. What is at stake is the survival of the nation, the future of the nation.

We think that the idea of the future Zambia is the most important and most noble idea that any citizen can harbour. And progressive citizens have always fought for the future. To fight for the future does not mean to avoid doing every day what must be done for the present. The two ideas must not be confused.

It will be naïve and foolish for The Post to fall into the trap of joining the treacherous MECOZ whose discernible preoccupation is attacking it. The Post will not put its neck under the executioner’s ax being waved by MECOZ; the preservation instinct, the condition of thinking human beings make this impossible.

Some of the things that come from MECOZ are really silly. They talk about the language of The Post. What language? The Post has never invented a language. And for most of the part it borrows its language from the Holy Bible. When The Post calls a thief a thief, this is not strange language. It is offensive because they don’t want to hear it, they are defending thieves, they are in league with Chiluba who we have called a thief and has been found to be a thief by the London High Court and the Zambian government is today seeking the registration of that judgment so that they can effect it in Zambia and recover what Chiluba has stolen. When we called Chiluba a thief in 2001, we were condemned by these same characters who are today masquerading as champions of media ethics when they are nothing but champions, defenders of despots and thieves. What is wrong to use the words that are used in the Bible to describe certain undesirable behaviour? The words foolish, stupid, fox and so on and so forth are not an invention of The Post. They are there in the Bible and even Christ used some of them to describe and denounce the behaviour of the Pharisees, of Herod. What matters is if such words are used in an honest manner. And so far, no one can accuse The Post of dishonesty. Even in our courts of law, there are more libel judgments against the Times of Zambia and Daily Mail than The Post. So, what are they talking about? This is nothing but just an attempt to conceal their hatred for The Post and their criminal schemes against this newspaper.

Until the Zambian media landscape changes and a lot of other things change, it will not be possible for this country to have an all-inclusive media council. It is easy right now for The Post and the media under the Catholic Media Services, and probably the National Mirror to come together and form a media council. This is because there is much more in common among them; they are not subjected to the political control of anyone. They have a reasonable measure of independence to enable them to practice ethical journalism.

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