The Chief Government Spokesperson and Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Dora Siliya has pledged that, under her reign, and as long as she remains in that office, she will ensure that the long-forgotten Access to Information Bill is passed through Parliament and enacted. Her point is that if government has to defuse fake news, it must pass this law that will allow citizens to legally access factual data from State institutions.

In return, Honourable Siliya also wants journalists in Zambia to commit to establishing a self-regulatory body of affiliation that would enforce professional standards among media practitioners. Her concern being that there is too much confusion in the media fraternity to an extent that citizens can’t distinguish between professional news reporters and citizen journalists.

We hope this opinion will help the Minister understand the journalists’ arguments as she pushes for this third attempt at media self-regulation in Zambia, so that she can adjust her approach to make sure that what she intends to achieve becomes of real value to the Zambian media in a practical sense.

We urge Honourable Siliya to take our views seriously on this matter because our opinion is quite informed. The editors of News Diggers have been involved in talks around self-regulation of the media since 2008 when the formation of the Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC) was conceived to ‘replace’ the malfunctioning Media Council of Zambia (MECOZ) established under MISA. We further advise the minister to engage State House Press Aide Amos Chanda and hear his views on why he supported media resistance against an imposed ‘self-regulation’ law when he served in the leadership of the Press Association of Zambia (PAZA). If Mr Chanda is as honest as we know him, he will refer Honourable Siliya to the “2010 Fringila Consensus” contained in the International Press Institute (IPI) Report on media regulation in Zambia, which we have dispatched to the minister’s office for her perusal.

Honourable Siliya must not start from scratch on this matter. The arguments are already well documented and she will do well to quickly acquaint herself to the contentious issues and address the bottlenecks in order to get everyone involved again. But for the benefit of our readers who may be following this self-regulation debate for the first time, we will quickly run through the concerns.

Journalists in Zambia fear belonging to a regulatory body because they don’t believe that such an institution, especially if it is established as an Act of Parliament, would have any autonomy from the State and retain the real essence of “Self” regulation. Unlike lawyers and doctors who study medicine, journalism is too closely related to the human right of Freedom of Speech, and that already makes it difficult for a State to copy and paste regulatory frameworks from other professions.

What drives effective journalism in the world is not exactly the salary, but rather the passion for writing. We are testimony to this fact because News Diggers is full of volunteers who don’t have salaries. That is the reason why it is almost impossible to find a billionaire practicing journalist who made his/her fortunes from news reporting. The net worth of rich journalists like Anderson Cooper and Julian Assange put together doesn’t even equate to 2 percent of the richest medical doctors on earth. Journalism is more about passion and sacrifice. However, we also appreciate the fact that in Zambia, this career has been high-jacked by money spinners who can do anything for three pieces of silver.

Our fear is that the leadership of such a body can easily be infiltrated and manipulated. And using that compromised leadership, hardworking investigative journalists who prove to be hard-hitting; exposing corruption among government officials, would be targeted. What guarantee is there that this self-regulatory body will stand its ground to protect individual hard-working professional journalists who will expose the corruption of a Minister of Information and Broadcasting or a State House Press Aide, for example?

These are very powerful positions in government that can order not only the withdrawal of a journalist’s practicing licence, but also command an arrest of a reporter at the snap of a finger. We should not fool ourselves here into lying to each other that only those journalists who publish fake, scandalous social media news, or those that misquote sources would be regulated and punished. The truth is that every hard-hitting journalist will survive at the mercy of the ministers and those in government authority who shall wield influence over the so-called media ‘self-regulatory’ body.

This is a country where the State can use anything to silence aggressive media. We are not talking about hostile media, but brave and aggressive media that leaves no stone unturned. If they don’t use the tax compliance excuse for shutting down a media house, they will strangle it financially until it gets on its begging knees. They will warn corporate institutions against placing adverts in such media houses. If that doesn’t work, they will resort to threats and arrests to kill the spirit of a journalist. The motive is to silence anyone while they plunder in peace. Is this the kind of regime that anyone would want to further arm with such a media regulation law? Not any passionate journalist would be interested.

As a media house, we have understood what Honourable Siliya is trying to achieve. She feels that in the absence of this body, journalism will remain without protection from the State as they risk being punished along with those who abuse the little remaining free media space. We are willing, as a media organization, to support the establishment of such a regulatory body, BUT OUR MEMBERSHIP TO IT MUST NOT BE DICTATED BY THE GOVERNMENT.

Journalists must be free to choose to belong to that institution and get whatever benefits that will come with it; if it is designed in such an attractive manner, we are sure everyone will want to be a part of it. But those who wish to practice journalism independently without being part of this body must be allowed to operate and face whatever consequences that might be implied under the established media laws. It must not be that a journalist who will not have a membership card from this institution should be prevented from reporting news. No! Some of the best news writers in Zambia are not even trained journalists at all; they were born writers and got lost in other careers. We don’t want to block such citizens from being part of the mass media industry. There freedom of speech and their right to communicate must be left unabated.

News consumers will have to make a choice, which news they want to read, after all, there is no guarantee that those accredited to this body will not publish false news. Just two days ago, the Zambia Police refuted a Times of Zambia story as fake news! This is Zambia’s oldest newspaper owned by the State, but they got their facts wrong! It happens in every profession, what is important is for media practitioners to own up when they make a mistake and apologise. That is the responsibility that the Minister must be talking about, and that virtue cannot be replaced by a self-regulatory media body.

We understand that Honourable Siliya is desperate to leave an impact in that Ministry, and we have a lot of confidence in her because she is a doer. But the consequences of establishing this body will do exactly the opposite of what she is trying to do. The horrific scenes that will ensue from this establishment will haunt her wherever she will go; and we believe that she will not be happy to have created a monster against journalists and handed it over to even worse, oppressive regimes that will come after her PF gets out of office.

Our advice to Honourable Siliya is that she must invest her energies in delivering on her ATI Bill, which she has promised. That alone will be such a great achievement above all the other ministers who have been in that office since this Bill was called for.

That is the legacy we want to remember Siliya for. We will stick pictures of her face in our newsrooms to remind younger, future journalists about the Minister who made it possible for them to visit any Ministry or government institution and legally demand records, which they need for their investigations; a minister who made it possible for journalists to break barriers in their investigation without the threat and fear of publishing “classified information”.

Like President Lungu gave people the Constitution they wanted, let Siliya also deliver the ATI Bill for us. To do this, she will need all the support from other Cabinet Ministers and government stakeholders. If there are any ministers who don’t understand what the ATI Bill entails, we would like to encourage them to solicit an explanation from Honourable Siliya; and if she defines it the way she did at the Bloomberg Africa Business Media Innovators Conference in Livingstone last Sunday, we are sure everyone will help her achieve this legacy.

Please, give us the Access to Information Bill. We need it like yesterday! If it will bring more problems for us like the hurriedly-delivered Constitution, we will take the blame and make necessary amendments to perfect it. Like the Minister told Bloomberg delegates, the ATI Bill is not for the benefit of journalists only, it’s for the government as well, and the citizens it governs. ATI will suppress fake news.