The Parliamentary Committee on Media, Information and Communication Technologies says the new media era has brought on board false and untraceable news disseminators who cannot be held accountable for their misdeeds.

In its report for the second session of the Twelfth National Assembly submitted to parliament, the committee observed that cyberspace crime, infringement of privacy, and threats on information protection were some of the challenges which the media faced.

“Challenges of media convergence include cyberspace crime, infringement of privacy and threats on information protection. In addition, the new media era had brought on board disseminators of news of unknown identities and no known fixed abode who could, therefore, not be held accountable for abrogating journalism tenets by anyone. In Zambia, the media landscape had been taken by storm by explosion in digital technology or new technologies. This had affected the way journalists gathered and disseminated information on one hand and how the public consumed information, on the other. The power to communicate on a mass scale no longer rested solely in the hands of the elite who had the capacity to establish and operate electronic and print media houses, which had previously been a natural barrier to participation by the general public. Currently, anyone with access to the internet could create and share or edit theirs or another person’s content. The advent of mobile phones, internet access, and digital cameras allowed citizens to engage in public debate at unprecedented levels,” the committee observed.

The Committee chaired by George Imbuwa also observed that there were some lacunas in the existing legal frameworks that could not regulate social media usage, mainly because the available pieces of legislation were drawn at the time when people accessed information through the traditional media.

“Stakeholders however observed that there were enough laws in place for the media industry in Zambia such as the Penal Code which could also be applicable to modern methods of information gathering and dissemination. Among these were laws relating to: (a) prohibited publications; (b) seditious intentions; (c) publication of false news with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public; (d) contempt of court; (e) contempt of parliament; (f) trafficking in obscene publications; (g) defamation; (h) blasphemy; (i) state security; and (j) Theatre and Cinematography Exhibition. However, there were some lacunas in these legal frameworks mainly because these pieces of legislation were drawn at the time when people accessed information through the traditional media. As a result, these laws were laws incompetent to deal with the sophistication and capacity of the social media,” submitted the committee.

It was further discovered by the committee that journalists at times accessed information from websites and redistributed it through their various media houses without authenticating it.

“The stakeholders submitted that currently, journalists accessed information from websites and re-distributed information through their media houses at times without checking for authenticity, correctness, accuracy and for other qualities in line with the traditional determinants of news. As a result, regulatory bodies found themselves in a situation where the use of new technologies brought up new challenges at every turn. It had become increasingly difficult to achieve relative permanency in the legal and policy frameworks in the media industry. This was because the freedom to communicate, collect and disseminate information had undergone dramatic global changes. The convergence of the mass media, telecommunications and computers had raised theoretical, conceptual, and methodological questions reflected in modern communications law, police, and regulation,” the committee further observed.

The committee observed the need to review and strengthern legislations on journalism practice vis-a-vis the use of new technologies.

“The stakeholders noted that while ZICTA provided for measures to curb the abuse and misuse of ICT products, including social media platforms, the IBA advised on broadcasting standards and ethical conduct. They note that there was need to further review and strengthen legislation that touched on the practice of journalism vis-a-vis the use of new technologies. There was also need to recast the traditional problems inherent in freedom of expression including information seeking, creation, processing, flow and use in light of the special conditions presented by the new media,” further read the report.

“The use of cyber space to distribute news, social networking, video sharing through whatsapp, youtube, messaging, sale of products or digital advertising was done on the basis of the freedom of expression enshrined in Article 20 (1) of the Constitution. The Electronic Communication and Transactions Act, No. 21 of 2009 was designed to develop a safe, secure and effective environment for the consumer, business sector and government to conduct and use electronic communications on cyberspace. However, your committee was informed that the government was in the process of drafting the ICT Bills that would regulate the use of cyberspace. The Bills included: the Information and Communications Technology Society of Zambia; Cyber Crime Commerce; and Data Protection.”

In the submitted report, the committee also stated that it was difficult to punish people who committed crimes online using other pieces of legislation because they could not be tracked.

“The Electronic Communications and Transmission Act, however does not specifically deal with the common media crimes such as plagiarism, dissemination of falsehoods, vulgar language and hate speech. However people who committed crimes online such as fraud, copyright infringement, defamation of character, libel, theft by public servant or dissemination of obscene materials, could be punished using other pieces of legislation. Nevertheless, it was, however difficult to track and prosecute such people because some of them used false identities,” the report stated.

“Most organisations had their own internal communication policies on how to use the social media platforms. These policies sometimes worked well for organizations because employees branded the knowledge or amplified the voice of the organization through media houses and social platforms. For instance, institutional guidelines prohibited media practitioners from accepting anything of less value from sources. As such, institutional guidelines limited activities which could pose conflicts of interest and stressed the responsibility of media practitioners to society and their obligation to be accurate, impartial and independent in their manner of reporting. This was because a journalist’s obligation was to serve the public not a profession, particular newspaper, radio, television station or government, but the public loyalty to facts.”

And among the challenges faced on modern information gathering and dissemination, the committee stated that it was difficult to tell whether or not information on social media was circulated by journalists as anybody with internet could use the medium.

“A number of online publications had emerged which were being hosted in other countries. Stakeholders felt that there was need to regulate the new media as it was being used in some cases to advance hate speech, falsehood, divisions and disunity. It was difficult to tell whether the information was being circulated by a journalists or not as anybody could use the medium at their disposal to send a message. Usage of social media platforms came with cyber-bullying, online sexual predators and decrease face-to-face interactions. Social media also exposed children to images of alcohol, tobacco, and various sexual behaviours. Some media scholars observed that social platforms chipped the capacity for concentration and contemplation making news content shallow. Some articles circulated on social media platforms were not well researched and lacked depth and quality. Raw news was often presented on social media platforms that were not factual creating unnecessary alarm. It was difficult to trace people who circulated vulgar language and hate speech which could destroy the moral fibre of any society,” stated the committee.