Liberate the slaves at Times of Zambia

A condition of having to work very hard without proper remuneration or appreciation is called slavery. This is what is going on at the legendary Times of Zambia where employees are owed seven months salary arrears.

If Times of Zambia was a private newspaper company, we would simply watch and mind our own business. But this newspaper is our business because it belongs to us and every other Zambian who pays tax. Therefore, it concerns us when a public owned enterprise is being run down through mismanagement at the hands of political elements.

We are bothered with the abuse of workers at this company because we feel Zambian labour laws were not created for private and foreign entities only. We expect government parastatals to lead by example. What is happening at Times of Zambia is sad. Employees survive like council workers, but without the advantage of having any plots to sell for a living, under the PF-decreed “ubomba mwibala alya mwibala” principle.

But delayed salaries is not actually the main problem; it is merely a symptom of the bigger problem caused by the selfish leaders in government who use State-owned enterprises as milking cows, without proper interest in their continued existence.

Last week, Information and Broadcasting Minister Dora Siliya gave Parliament a snippet of the financial crisis obtaining at the Times of Zambia, and we were eager to hear what plans the PF government had for the newspaper. But as expected the burden was passed on to the new shareholders, the Industrial Development Corporation (IDC).

For the benefit of those who didn’t hear Honourable Siliya’s explanation to the House when asked why government had not paid the K7million owed to Times of Zambia for advertising space, here is the summary of what the minister said last Thursday:

“Indeed it’s true that government departments owe the Times of Zambia. The actual figure we have is actually K5.7 million and obviously there are other outstanding debts which arose from terminal benefits following the retrenchment of staff in 2010, which amounts to over K17 million and legal fees of about K6 million. The payment of all employees at Times of Zambia is not up to date. There are 284 employees with seven months salary arrears, amounting to K9 million,” said Honourable Siliya.

“The problems at Times of Zambia are quite huge. Times of Zambia is quite indebted as well as owed. So it is important to note that we are on the same page now and we can all accept that at the end of the day, when institutions especially statutory institutions such as these are performing badly, it is the taxpayers that are suffering. But I am not so sure that at this point in time we have to begin by pointing fingers. At the same time, government is not involved in the daily running of the Times of Zambia. As you know, the Times of Zambia shareholding now is by IDC and I am sure that at the appropriate time, both the board and the IDC will make the right decision on the way forward.”

Unfortunately, the minister was not being honest about the real problem at the Times of Zambia. In fact, to say that the government is not involved in the daily operations of the newspaper is laughable because the minister knows, as much as we do, that the government is more involved in key editorial policy decisions at Times of Zambia than the Times of Zambia management itself.

We are not surprised that government departments can push advertising content of about K7 million on Times of Zambia without paying for it. But how can a newspaper survive? Like we have stated in the past, journalists at public media institutions are very qualified and probably more experienced than some at private newspapers. If left to be a true public media house, devoid of State influence, Times of Zambia would be one of the hottest selling newspapers.

But our journalist colleagues at this institution have been lowered to publishers of government propaganda, which only has market in government offices where the apamwambas look for news that pleases their ego. As if that were not enough punishment, the labourers who write this massaged news don’t even get paid, and no one wants to take responsibility for the mismanagement of the institution.

It’s easy for the minister to say that the IDC and the new board will sit to resolve the crisis, but how can she forget that the board she is referring to is composed of PF cadres who have limited media management knowledge if any? How can Madam Siliya forget that the IDC had US$16 million for investment consideration and they pumped it all into a non-viable private company called Zampalm, forgetting their baby? How can government be looking for an equity partner to invest in Times of Zambia when IDC has so much money to waste?

This is the consequence of the criminality that we have been writing about regarding the IDC where someone with clever fingers changed the composition of the Corporation’s board. The trouble with the current IDC is that ministers like Honourable Siliya who presides over companies incorporated under IDC, are outside the IDC board; their voice is not represented.

This confusion has left us with a situation where the Minister of Information and Broadcasting appoints board members for Times of Zambia, but the company reports its losses elsewhere. Where is the business logic in this? This is the real problem facing Times of Zambia.

Honourable Siliya further told the House that Times of Zambia is facing these challenges because it is overstaffed. But it is a known fact that State enterprises don’t employ staff according to necessity, they employ as and when the politicians send their relatives and friends. As Honourable Siliya rightly admitted, there was staff retrenchment at Times of Zambia in 2010, so where has the overstaffing come from?

Now the minister says liquidating the newspaper is on the table as an option for the staggering State-owned enterprise that employs hundreds of citizens. Is this not failure to manage government institutions? Is this what they meant in their campaigns when they promised to prioritise employment creation? Or maybe they promised employment ‘cremation’ and we just didn’t hear properly.

         

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