Last Friday, State House Press Aide Isaac Chipampe said, when he featured on a special interview on Hot FM, that he understood a press conference was one of the most effective ways for the Head of State to reach out to citizens, and even promised to prod President Lungu to consider having one soon.
He, however, argued that there was nothing wrong with the Head of State using airports as a platform to communicate.
But speaking when he called News Diggers! Mweetwa said Chipampe did not understand that there was no formal structure through which journalists could engage the President at airports.
“At State House, there’s a formal arrangement where after the President gives a speech, journalists then begin to ask questions and answers are given. Whereas at the airport, he (President Lungu) will just say ‘mfwiti mfwiti mfwiti! (a witch, a witch)’ And before he’s asked questions, he disappears!” Mweetwa exclaimed.
“Looking at where Mr Chipampe has been working, one would expect naturally from him that he understands that when you dealing with a press conference at State House, it brings with it two things: it brings decency and honour associated with State House, which is key in terms of channelling out information. Then secondly, and most importantly, a press conference at State House is a formal interaction between a President and the media. There is formal engagement through which the President will deliver his speech, after which journalists begin to engage him on the speech he has given or other issues incidental or connected to what he has said or other issues affecting the nation, with ample time.”
He insisted that journalists did not get an opportunity to seek clarity over President Lungu’s statements at the airport.
“At an airport, that is a transit point…it’s like someone wants to visit you at home to discuss something then you tell them ‘no no no, wherever we meet or at the bus stop if we meet it’s fine we can speak from there.’ An airport is a transit point and when the President is alighting from a plane or getting on a plane, he’s in motion. That’s why you find he usually spends maybe just maximum five minutes and you find that he will leave while journalists are still trying to seek clarification on certain issues. You saw even when he made the last comment of ‘mfwiti mfwiti mfwiti’, he just made those comments ‘nakukanilani ine! (I have refused!)’ then he left. But me, I still wanted to hear from him…and you can imagine, if it was at a press conference, some journalists would have sought clarification to say: ‘Mr President, now that you have mentioned ‘mfwiti mfwiti mfwiti’ on an issue to do with corruption, Sir, what is the relationship between the two?’ So, that he would have explained. Unlike now, the way he has left people making comedy about it and trying to figure out why he brought up that comment,” Mweetwa said.
And Mweetwa, who is also Choma Central UPND member of parliament, added that conducting a press conference would also give the Head of State a chance to clear his name of any wrongdoing.
“We know that, that job he does is very taxing and it has a lot of issues. So, sometimes, he makes certain comments that people may not really understand as to what he implies. So, it is important that (he) always finds time to address the nation. In fact, it is not just for the public and for the media to benefit from such interactions; it is also good for himself because he now has an opportunity to clarify on many issues, which he may not be aware that people are perceiving them in a particular way. So, this is a win – win situation…and it is also good for a democracy. In a modern world, you expect that release of information from decision-makers should be in a very structured way and should be regular, people should not be starved with information,” he argued.
“We know that the former Press Aid, Amos Chanda, took the role now of becoming full-time being the one channelling out information all the time. Yes, that’s part of the job, but people want to hear from their leader! That is expected that a leader should be able to interact with his people. In the past when there is a press conference for the President, you would find that the whole nation, people even in offices will be tuned in because they want to hear from their President. We shouldn’t just hear from the President when he’s opening Parliament and when he comes to talk about national values and principles, which are being violated! Because right now, when you hear from the President, he’s commissioning a project or he’s at a rally campaigning or, indeed, at the airport! But what we need is a formal set-up.”
He urged Chipampe to speed up the process of organizing President Lungu’s much-needed second press conference in four years.
“So, for Mr Chipampe, I understand, he’s bound to speak like that. I know he knows that what the people are saying is correct. But he can’t come out in the open. He has to be seen to justify that position even when I think he knows that it will be in the interest of the President to be interacting through press conferences. Moreover, our system is not like the South African system where the President can come to Parliament in a question and answer session. A press conference is the only window through which citizens, via the media, can have questions put before the President and the President to answer those questions. It’s not only the President to say what he wants wherever, it is also about the people, through the media, asking the President to come up with his position on certain issues of public concern,” said Mweetwa.