10 October 2012
Source: International Press Institute
(IPI/IFEX) – 10 October 2012 – A year after President Michael Sata was elected in Zambia on promises to improve media freedom, his Patriotic Front party is patting itself on the back while some media workers remain sceptical about just how far the country has come.
“My government’s agenda on the media is to ensure that it continuously challenges government to serve the people of Zambia better,” Zambian President Michael Sata said during a Sept. 21 speech at the opening session of Parliament. “To achieve this, my government has, in the last 12 months, embarked on a wide range of policy interventions.”
Patriotic Front officials promised last year to free the public media from government control, accept a self-regulatory mechanism for the media and pass a Freedom of Information Act.
“We have removed government controls on public media so that they carry out their role of informing, educating and entertaining the public freely and professionally,” said Sata. “Even our colleagues in the opposition are now happy beneficiaries of this open policy of my government.”
So how do journalists rate the government’s performance? IPI spoke with a number of reporters and press freedom advocates, who said that while some steps have been made in the right direction, progress has been slower than expected. And some fear that despite its proclamations, the government is trying to keep a leash on free speech.
When it comes to the media council, the government deserves due praise for upholding its promise to support voluntary self-regulation. The Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC), a voluntary self-regulatory body that has been in the works for years, was finally launched in July 2012. The previous government had crippled efforts to start the body by threatening to prevent the public media from participating. Since government-owned media employ some two-thirds of all Zambian journalists, its non-participation would have threatened the body’s legitimacy and financial independence.
The Sata government seems to have accepted ZAMEC. Patson Phiri, executive secretary of the Press Association of Zambia, who previously worked for the state-owned newspaper Times of Zambia, said preparations to operationalize ZAMEC are “going well,” with members preparing for an annual general assembly that should adopt a final version of the ZAMEC constitution and code of ethics.
Nalumino Nalumino, the acting chairperson of the Media Institute of Southern Africa‘s (MISA) Zambian branch, is happy with progress. “This government came to power and within a year they allowed the media to regulate themselves without statute,” he told IPI. “There hasn’t been a directive, such as from the previous government, that says public media should not be part of ZAMEC. It would be a futile exercise to allow ZAMEC to exist and deny their participation.”
In terms of freeing from government oversight the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) and the two publically-owned dailies, the Times of Zambia and the Daily Mail, journalists were less impressed with government progress.
According to journalists IPI spoke with, there is today a general lack of strong media that independently scrutinize government policy.
The overall sense is that it used to be expected, if not totally accepted, that the government-owned newspapers would not criticize or scrutinize too closely the actions of the ruling party and its officials. To balance that there was the very strong newspaper The Post, which, as one unnamed source who has worked for government-owned media put it, “spoke very fearlessly about certain excesses of government.” But the paper formerly known as the raging vanguard of anti-ruling party sentiment is now perceived by most journalists IPI spoke to as being favourable to the ruling Patriotic Front.
Of course, privately owned media are entitled to their editorial positions. Government-owned media, on the other hand, should serve the public in accordance with internationally accepted principles, such as those laid out in the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression in Africa, which were adopted by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2002.