Last week, a celebrated Zambian singer Mukubesa Mundia, popularly known by his stage name “Peterson Zagaze” made two social media postings which landed him in hot soup with media practitioners. The angry journalists treated what the musician posted as an insult to the Fourth Estate.

In one Facebook posting, Petersen remarked: “With ‘most’ Zambian journalists, a good story will remain uncovered as long as it doesn’t produce or promise transport refund. That’s why all hot stories are politician based.”

The dancehall star repeated similar sentiments on Twitter, saying: “What is wrong with celebrating Christopher Katongo? The media in England works tirelessly to create a big Harry Kane, Portugal does theirs on Ronaldo, Zimbabwe on Khama Billiat, Messi is Argentina’s… and the world follows. Ise kuno all media people want is transport refund.”

Media practitioners did not have kind words for the singer. They forcefully added him to a journalists’ WhatsApp group where they took turns roasting him. Finally, using the hashtag #BlackoutPetersen, they resolved to never give the celebrated singer any media coverage, as a consequence for his demeaning remarks on scribes.

We would like to start by stating that, although Petersen was wrong to a great extent, he was misunderstood to some extent. We feel the singer was understood to have meant that “ALL MEDIA PEOPLE WANT transport refund”, when according to our understanding of grammar, he meant “ALL ‘WHAT’ MEDIA PEOPLE WANT IS transport refund. He omitted the relative pronoun “what” in his expression, but kept “is”. The two expressions carry different interpretations. In our view, he did not mean “every single journalist” wants transport refund, and that can be qualified by his other posting in which he categorically said ‘Most Zambian journalists’.

Our readers may be wondering; what is the so-called “transport refund?” This is money that is paid to journalists in the form of transport refund when they go to cover press briefings or related assignments. It is a fast growing trend in Zambia that if you want to have a good media turn out at your event, you must promise us this transport refund. On the Copperbelt, apparently we journalists even have a fixed rate of how much we must be paid as transport refund when we cover your event.

It’s not everyone doing this. There are journalists in Zambia who are hearing about this transport refund issue for the first time. In their entire career, they have never bothered to demand for any form of financial motivation from news sources and they practice very ethical journalists. That is not the group of journalists Petersen was addressing, he was talking about those who are promoting the culture of ‘pay per view’ in the media; and we don’t see anything wrong with someone questioning that growing trend of blacking out institutions that don’t give transport refund.

Now, we find Peterson wrong for saying that Zambian journalists are not promoting their own talented citizens like Christopher Katongo. This singer is a product of media publicity and he is just one example of many. Without the work of journalists he would not be where he is. But it appears he would like to see journalists sing praises to all Zambian celebrities even those who do wrong, for the sake of ‘promoting our own’. On that one, Petersen is wrong because that’s not the role of the media. If what he is asking from journalists makes sense, then he must stop criticizing our politicians in his songs and instead start ‘promoting our own?’ Journalists who made Peterson what he is today did not do so because he gave them transport refund or for the sake of ‘promoting our own’, but because he was a story worth telling.

However, despite being wrong to this great extent, we do not think that Petersen deserves to be blacked out. As a Zambian citizen, Petersen has the right to express his opinion, right or wrong. Freedom of expression is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Zambian Constitution under Article 20. The Supreme law of the land gives protection for an individual to hold opinions and communicate those opinions without interference.

It is Petersen’s opinion that “most journalists in Zambia” are motivated by transport refund. If he is wrong, those who feel aggrieved are protected by the same Constitution to express their counter opinions in disagreement, and that is how community and national discourse should be embraced. Blacking out Petersen is tantamount to interfering with his freedom of expression.

As a matter of fact, we feel it is blackmail to tell Petersen that we made you who you are and as such you have no right to criticise us. Journalists are not faultless, we don’t have the monopoly of wisdom and we make so many mistakes in the execution of our duties. People have the right to point out a wrong or a bad habit among us journalists and we should not threaten our critics with the power of the pen. The same way that we expect politicians to take the criticism that we publish is the same way that we must embrace the criticism thrown at us, if we have to improve in our conduct.

Peterson is raising a very cardinal issue here, which should not be silenced by the struggles that we journalists go through in our day-to-day jobs. Yes, we get beaten by cadres to get some stories and there is a long list of painful endeavours that we battle with to stay in the profession. But what Petersen is pointing at is something that cannot be ignored.

We must take self introspection as journalists and ask ourselves; how did it get this bad? There are bad elements who disguise themselves as journalists and follow events just to eat food and take transport refunds. How do we differentiate ourselves from these bad elements? If we also demand transport refunds like those individuals who don’t even write for any institution, how ethical are we? How are we better than them?

That is the real problem we are facing as journalists from public and private media. That is what we must think about and deal with, not blacking out Petersen.

Today, media institutions have attached reporters to specific political parties for months, and they don’t even have to attend newsroom diary. They just travel with politicians from town to town, return to Lusaka just to change clothes and head out again for campaigns. What kind of journalism is that? How will that reporter expose anything wrong about that politician? When will that journalist find time to do any investigative work?

It turns out that politicians actually pay media houses for this type of coverage, and media owners cannot refuse these offers because the economy is so bad and there are no advertisements. Without such supplementary income, media houses cannot remain in business. If this bad economy is what is causing our institutions to pay journalists little money, and the poorly paid journalists need transport refunds to survive, let’s deal with that economic problem. That is the issue we must face, not blacking out Petersen.

Petersen may not understand the environment under which journalists operate, his opinion has merely pointed out what he has observed on the surface. He finds it strange that “most journalists” are motivated by transport refund in Zambia – and indeed it is strange. We can insult him, black him out or even stop listening to his music; but that will not solve the bigger problem that we must face as journalists, and deal with.

We would like to emphasize that innocent journalists who feel offended by Petersen’s opinion have the right to react in the manner they deem fit because it is also their right to defend their reputation. But as News Diggers, we have taken note of his valid criticism of our behavior as journalists. We will not black out Petersen for exposing our bad habits. Instead, we will give him all the publicity he deserves in his work, while trying to improve our own work ethics. Long live Freedom of Expression! Long live Press Freedom!