I am not only a strong believer in free press but an ardent proponent of free press. I have dedicated the most part of my working career training journalists from Sub Saharan Africa in business and economic reporting. There are critical underlying principles for this training, and I seek, through this article, to show the private sector, why press freedom is about freedom to do business.
As a country, we have made significant strides in the promotion of free enterprise. Most of the earlier policies that restricted business ownership, cross-border trading, property rights, for example, have been dismantled in the past 30 years. Even the most enterprising Zambians could not thrive because they had to declare the nature of their businesses or run the risk of spending time in jail. I recently met a woman whose parents spent years in prison in the 1980s on suspicion they were involved in unscrupulous business activities.
The changes of economic (and political) liberalisation which came in the 1990s have paused serious challenges to all aspects of our society. Consonant with these changes, journalists in these countries have also been experiencing new freedoms: more news organisations are becoming independent of political controls; in addition, there are many new sources of information, some arriving via Internet, others through the process of opening to new ideas and new partnerships.
In addition, the media once directly received increased funding from the donors under the new democratic environment than at any time in history. This has unfortunately dried up now, leaving most private sector media houses at the mercy of advertisers who will not come forth unless you toe the live of government. With the COVID-19 challenge, private media is threatened with extinction and it is unlikely to access a penny from the K10 billion Bank of Zambia fund. (If there was anything about prioritisation, I would provide soft credit loans to private media houses. This is for good reason).
The media in Zambia, like elsewhere, is more than a paid chronicler of change. It is not a passive element that helps researchers study the different components that make up for liberalisation. The media itself is an active player; it is a necessary facilitator in the new political economy. The transition to market economics, and to open societies and to accountable government, will be difficult to sustain, if there aren’t functioning organs of the press. The growth in negative perception through social media is primarily because mainstream media is finding it very hard to operate due to financial constraints. It is, in fact, correct to assume that there is a very strong relationship between private sector growth and press freedom.
On two separate occasions, I met two serving heads of state, President Rupiah Banda in July 2010 at the State House residence and President Michael Stata, when I was Director General of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation. On both occasions, we touched on press freedom, seizing those rare moments to explain to the national leaders why press freedom was at the centre of good governance. President Banda could not conceal his misgivings about The Post owner Fred Mmembe. He was also careful about doing anything punitive against the paper because he understood, despite not liking its editorial policy, it played a huge role in promoting democracy. He also did not want to do anything that would harm advertising for the paper.
A free press helps citizens understand and participate in changing economic structures. The post COVID-19 period will be very crucial for all economic agents and that transition will squally be the responsibility of the media. We should appreciate that a free economy is made up of people; free citizens who effectively participate at a micro-economic level to contribute to the general welfare of the country. Economic growth is not only measured by how many people find formal jobs, but how many individuals will make a cautious choice to participate in an economy as producers and distributors.
Economic transformation in the post COVID-19 period will not be favourable, especially in the short run. Some of the measures may, to a large extent, reduce economic activity, force companies to close, lead to loss of jobs and general loss of the standard of living. Political upheavals have occurred in countries where citizens did not understand this kind of change. This is where the media plays a critical role by educating and helping citizens understand the changing economic climate. A good press will re-orient people to existing alternatives to gainful economic participation and employment.
Free press also helps governments gauge the consequences of their actions and inactions. Most of the countries that adopted democratic principles considered press freedom as the best measurement of democracy at work. Most of these governments today are back-peddling on this score. All this goes to show that newly democratic governments are not too sure of how government economic policy will be affected by an outspoken press. This defines the essence of the media: to keep the government on its toes. It should be realised that even democratic governments can slumber and disappear into oblivion.
There is a general saying that ‘a sleeping press is a sleeping government’. Finally, and very importantly, free press exposes corruption that undercuts economic growth. Corruption is said to be a cancer that fights its way under any form of government. The private sector thrives in an environment where corruption is nearly zero. You want to operate in an economy where you can be assured that a tender does not require oiling anyone to get it. Only a free press sets this tone where a fair platform of competitiveness is created. Creating a transparent market place is the reason why the private sector should support all media, more importantly private media, with all manner of advertising because a thriving free press is a thriving business environment.