Information and Broadcasting Services Minister Dora Siliya says a proposed Council of Journalists, once established, will be a professional body by an Act of Parliament to regulate journalists’ conduct.

And Siliya has warned that any media outlet or individual that will not carry the Council’s “certification marks” will be treated as “fake news.”

Meanwhile, Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga says he will write to heads of state media institutions to direct that give fair and equal coverage to all ministers and government officials regardless of who pays the most “Blarizo”.

In a speech read on her behalf by Malupenga during an interactive meeting with media heads and owners in Lusaka, Tuesday, Siliya explained what the Council of Journalists would entail.

“Government welcomes the ongoing process by the media fraternity to put in place a media self-regulatory mechanism for promoting ethical and professional journalism in the country. This is urgent in view of the escalating unprofessional conduct by some of the journalists in the country. As a Ministry, we are also deeply concerned about punitive measures against media houses arising from the misconduct by some journalists. We do not fault the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority). The IBA is working within the law. IBA Act provides for such punishments. We are, however, comforted by some journalists who have come to government and say they want an Act of Parliament to establish a professional body of journalists. Once established, the Council of Journalists will resolve some of the issues pertaining to punitive measures. Journalists, through their Council, will develop a code of ethics and will punish their members that violate the code,” Siliya said.

“What this will entail for you, media owners, is that if your employee violates the code, the matter will not go to the IBA, but will go to the Council, and the Council will punish erring journalist instead of your broadcasting license being suspended or cancelled. Suspension and cancellation of broadcasting licenses will only remain a punishment for those media operators who will employ people that are not recognized as journalists by the Council of Journalists. This Council, therefore, is very important, even to you, the media owners.”

And Siliya warned that any media outlet that would not carry the Council’s “certification marks” would be treated as “fake news.”

“It is a very important Council because it will deal with a lot of issues, such as decriminalizing the practice of journalism. Under the current legal regime, a journalist goes through the criminal justice procedure. But when the Council comes into being, procedures such as those applying to lawyers, doctors and all other professions that have professional bodies will apply. Only those journalists who will not meet the minimum admission requirement to the Council will be subjected to the criminal justice system if they commit an offence in the course of their journalism work,” she said.

“The creation of a Council of Journalists will not stop people who are not journalists from writing; it will only deny some privileges, such as what has just been mentioned. Even their media products will not have their certification marks to show that the work should be trusted. Consumers will consume such articles at their own risk. Journalism products that will not carry the certification mark of the Council of Journalists will be treated as fake news until proven otherwise. These and other interventions are key in providing a firm foundation for the growth of the media in the country.”

Meanwhile, Malupenga said state owned media institutions were giving more coverage to officials who paid the most “Blarizo” while blacking out those with “short fingers”.

“This issue of Blarizo is causing a lot of tension and so for those of you who may not know Blarizo, it’s when you have an event and afterwards, journalists are given something, and that something is money. If I call for coverage and I don’t give them the money, they will not cover me because the more I give, the more I am covered. Is this professional? And I want to tell you that I am writing, if they have not received, to the media heads in government institutions giving them direction that all Ministers receive fair and adequate coverage because there are some complaints within and beyond the public media. But I can’t write to The Mast because tomorrow they may say we want to give them instructions…I have received some complaints about coverage…You will discover that because I did not give a particular reporter a Blarizo…my image will not appear on TV!” Malupenga said.

“If you are very observant, you will discover that some faces are well-covered than others on ZNBC because of Blarizo. So, this is a very serious concern to me as a journalist. You need to protect yourself and judge if there is news or not. But if I have paid you so much, do you think I will accept wrong coverage from you? You will end up finding an angle so that you make me happy.”

Malupenga also complained that the lack of professionalism among some journalists had made it difficult for government to make progress on enacting the Access to Information Bill because some media practitioners tended to abuse the already-existing media freedoms.

He was responding to a question on what progress had been made to enact the much-anticipated Access to Information Bill.

“A lot of work has been done, and I am sure you’ve been following; I did try to catch up with the Minister (Siliya) and the rest of the team when I joined the Ministry last month. Cabinet, as you know, has given principal approval for this Bill to be presented in Parliament. But there are some administrative issues that are being attended to at the moment. The Bill is before the Attorney General (Likando Kalaluka), who is trying to see if they are some contradictions between what we are proposing to do and some existing laws,” replied Malupenga.

“But as we push for this, let’s us remind ourselves of these concerns we are talking about because, sometimes, we (journalists) are the ones who slow down the government to make progress because if the little freedom that is there is abused, then, someone will be saying, ‘what happens if you open the door wider?’ So, let’s give confidence, and in saying so…I am not trying to say, ‘Freedom of Information (Bill) is just about journalists, ‘that is a perception…this goes beyond journalism, it’s for all citizens, journalists included.”