MANY a time when we publish stories that expose hate speech from our politicians, or stories that reveal foul language during campaigns, we are accused of misquoting, misunderstanding, missing the context, and sometimes we are even accused of publishing falsehood, sometimes we are accused of having a hidden agenda or acting out of malice.
The story we published recently in which we quoted Chief Government spokesperson Honourable Dora Siliya saying Tongas have risen against easterners to grab the presidency from them, makes very sad reading. It is a story loaded with tribal sentiments and regionalism. Without the backing of an audio to satisfy ourselves with the accuracy of the minister’s words, we were not going to believe she said all that. It was going to be hard to report such a story without giving our readers the privilege of listening for themselves.
But apart from the tribal remarks, what puzzled us even more was the minister’s advice to traditional leaders on what they need to do in order to access Social Cash Transfer funds. The minister was outrightly advising headmen who are not vulnerable to lie to government so that they can get money from the Social Cash Transfer programme to buy clothes and bicycles. In other words, the minister was teaching people how to defraud her own government.
“We are here to tap about issues that affect our lives, we must not forget. I have heard that you are not benefiting from Social Cash Transfer, but the government has said if that was the case, it must not continue. Headmen should be taking social cash transfer as well. So those of you who would like to benefit from Social Cash Transfer, you must go to the DC’s office so that you can be told how to do it. They will ask you questions:
Does your house have iron sheets? Yes
Do you own cattle? Yes
Do you own a bicycle? Yes
How many times do you eat? You say we manage to eat four times a day.
As you are answering the machine is recording. It will say that you are not a poor person and you cannot benefit with such answers. Let me share some wisdom with you if you want to benefit from Social Cash Transfer. The DC will teach you that even when you live in a house with iron sheets, don’t say the truth so that you can be included on the social cash transfer programme. That way you can have money to buy shoes and bicycles,” said Siliya.
Now, she may have her weaknesses inside and outside government, but we know Honourable Siliya to be a caring mother, a person who goes out of her way to support the poorest of the poor in her constituency. Some people may disagree with us on this point, but those who have been to her constituency in Petauke District can attest to this fact. In fact, if Honourable Siliya will be readopted to stand again in Petauke in 2021, she may win with the rural vote because of the work she has done is in the villages, empowering women and the vulnerable through cooperatives.
So it baffled us to hear this mother telling people to be giving false information to government officers at the expense of the poor. If the people she was addressing go ahead to obtain money by false pretenses, it is the poor people, the most vulnerable who will starve to death. Is that what the minister wants to see? Where is her compassion for the starving people of Zambia?
The other question that arises out of this is; if a minister can openly teach people how to defraud the government, what does it say about her own conduct around government funds? If she sees nothing wrong with people stealing at the expense of the poor, what stops her from doing the same?
Many people, including the minister herself, may think that we were acting out of a desire to tarnish her image by reporting that story. But that is not true. No credible newspaper organisation can pursue a malicious agenda and even be proud of scandalizing people. Yes, we have stated in the past that “news is what someone doesn’t want us to publish, everything else is public relations”, but that is not the same as going on a rampage to publish fake news and libel against innocent people. Publishing the truth is all that matters, if the truth exposes what someone would have preferred to keep away from the public, there cannot be said to be any malice.
Our organisation does makes mistakes, and we have made a number of them in the past. As a responsible organisation, we feel bad when we publish inaccurate information. In fact, everyone gets sick when we get things wrong, even if it’s just a misspelling of someone’s name. But when we are accurate, we walk with our heads high, knowing we have professionally acted as a mirror of what is obtaining in our society.
We must say that we are disappointed with the Chief Government spokesperson over her conduct in Sinda. She may not be happy with us herself, but we are just messengers who have delivered her message to the people, like other media houses did. There is nothing we added to what the Minister said at the said meeting, we spent many hours in the night transcribing, and translating her campaign message. We did not want to be questioned for reporting what she did not say. That’s why we let the people listen with their own ears so that they can make their own conclusions.
But even with the efforts of reproducing the audio, verbatim and translation of someone’s campaign, people will still call us malicious. It is hard for journalists to operate professionally in this country. Those who have no courage to report things as they are end up being called cowards, while those who apply themselves dedicatedly to act as a mirror of society are called paid cadres. We wonder what a true professional journalist is expected to do.