So many messages and speeches have been given about Michael Sata: his style of politics and leadership; his populist inclined decisions both as an opposition leader and Head of State; as well as his passion for the vulnerable in our society.
However, to commemorate his death that occurred exactly three years ago, on 28th October 2014, as News Diggers! We choose to take a different path. We have chosen to remember Michael and the warm relationship he shared with the media and journalists in particular. Prominent, popular and to a larger extent theatrical as he was in his political odyssey, Michael was among the few politicians that understood the power of the pen; what the pen could do to frustrate or advance his cause; what sort of doors the pen could lock and unlock and more importantly, how to keep the pen in a friendly atmosphere if it had to continue spitting ink in more positive light towards him.
Certainly, Michael was an ardent believer in the principle of “…whether good or bad, publicity is publicity” and he managed to get the best out of any sort of publicity that came his way. It was very rare to hear Michael complain about having been misquoted by a journalist, if there was a backlash over his statement, Michael always took responsibility of the misstep and never chickened out by accusing the journalist of twisting facts, like most cowardly politicians do. Michael loved publicity, he loved the media, and he loved and cared for journalists. Any journalist that has worked with Michael right from his early days as District Governor, as Minister and MMD national secretary, as opposition leader and as Head of State, will concur with us that insofar as the media and journalists were concerned, Michael never carried himself as some kind of ‘special news source’ even though he was.
To get a story from Michael, all it took was for a journalist to place a call or simply pop up at his office even without prior appointment and he would warmly attend to you; no middleman or media chakuti chakuti (advisor or spokesperson) was required to access Michael for an interview; and no questionnaire was required to tap into Michael’s political mind. In fact, this made him one of the most media friendly, if not most interviewed politician this country has ever had so far.
Clearly, Michael understood news; he understood journalism and journalists, and as such respected the profession for all it is worth. Even as Head of State, we noticed how easygoing Michael was with journalists, whether on local or overseas assignments. Michael would never allow his political followers or security to harass journalists. Michael knew almost all the faces and names of journalists that prominently covered State House assignments, and he was the kind that would strike conversations with anybody in the press crew regardless of the institution they worked for and their editorial policy and decisions. For instance, we are aware that despite being so critical of his administration and him personally, on more than two occasions, Michael personally phoned the Daily Nation newspaper and requested that they send a reporter to State House for an exclusive interview so that he reacts to their stories. He did the same with The Post and many other media institutions in the country. It can only take a friend of the press to do such, especially when they are the occupants of the seat of power.
Also, Michael was brilliant at cultivating relationships with journalists, and when you have him as a beat, you literally became family, he would treat you with love, care and respect. Even George Chellah, who later came to be his spokesperson at State House, we know for a fact that they met and connected when Chellah was just a 24-year-old cub reporter at The Post, but the ‘source-newsmaker’ relationship between them was nurtured and grew to a level where Chellah became so much of a trustworthy and strategic player in Michael’s political schemes and inner circle both in the opposition days and in government.
In fact, Chellah was not the only young journalist that Michael developed a close relationship with. One morning in October 2011, Michael used his State House office line to phone the Managing Editor of News Diggers! who was then just a junior photographer at The Post. Michael called to appreciate the photojournalist for taking “very good pictures” of Dora Siliya’s campaigns in Petauke. Oblivious to the photographer, Michael wanted to increase the threshold of Patriotic Front MPs in Parliament through by-elections, and he saw a clear case of corruption in the campaigns conducted by the now Agriculture Minister before she was elected MMD member of parliament for Petauke Central. It later dawned on the photographer that Michael wanted the campaign images to be the main evidence in the election petition against Siliya, which as the public is fully aware, went according to Michael’s desire. As Head of State, Michael lowered himself to personally engage an unknown photojournalist because he found his work beneficial to his grip on power.
Both as a politician and Head of State, Michael fully appreciated the struggles journalists go through to get news, the need for people to be promptly informed and the importance of media deadlines. That is why, it was during his tenure as Head of State when airlifting of pressmen from both the private and public media to presidential assignments countrywide became routine. Previously, this was only the preserve of state media journalists who were dispatched in advance either by bus or by some tiresome mode of transport. Under Michael’s presidency, pressmen from both the private and public media where flown into far-flung areas in the morning and returned to Lusaka to key in their stories – negative or positive – the same day before dusk. These are just some of the numerous positive, inspirational and captivating encounters Michael had with the media and journalists in particular.
We cannot say much about the current administration at State House because to start with, we are not among the media houses that are invited to cover presidential assignments there. We have not been privileged to interact with President Edgar Lungu like our colleagues from public media. We don’t know how he relates with journalists from other private media houses that are ‘in good standing’ with State House. We cover the Head of State through his Facebook Page and once in a while we get lucky to interview his spokesperson.
But in Michael, the media definitely lost a friend. We miss his tolerance; we miss his recognition for the role that the media plays in society. In fact, we miss his sarcasm too. If we asked him why the current admiration at State House was treating journalists this way, his answer would be “You are the bloody reporter, ask them!”