MINISTER of Information and Broadcasting Dora Siliya announced that government will no longer conduct any business with Prime Television because they have demonstrated lack of patriotism by refusing to air free Coronavirus awareness messages.

“Government wishes to announce that it has ceased to cooperate with Prime Television station with immediate effect. The cessation of cooperation entails that the Government of the Republic of Zambia, and any of its agents, shall not conduct any media transactions with Prime Television station. There shall be no appearance of public officers and officials on Prime Television programmes, whether paid for or otherwise, until further notice. Government also wishes to categorically state that journalists from Prime Television shall not be invited to cover any government-related business,” Siliya stated.

“All Ministries, Provinces and other Spending Agencies are henceforth advised to cancel all business transactions that they may have with Prime Television station and to cease any form of cooperation with the broadcasting station. This decision has been necessitated by the position taken by Prime Television station which, through its proprietor Mr Gerald Shawa, on Friday 13th March, 2020 declared that the station shall not help Government to sensitise members of the general public about the Corona virus. Mr Shawa also boasted that the Government was only utilising his station because he had a large audience and not because the government wanted to support his station financially.”

Our newspaper sees nothing wrong with helping government in disseminating awareness messages, as we all join hands as a country in fighting the Coronavirus pandemic. Whether there is a budget for this undertaking or not, we believe that those who have the means for passing on messages should get on board and help. But we also don’t see anything wrong with any private media house that decides not to get involved in this undertaking.

Prime TV has not done anything wrong, it has not broken any laws. If Prime TV committed any offence or abrogated any broadcasting laws, it is the responsibility of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) to approach the station and mete out the necessary punishment. But the IBA cannot do this because Prime TV has not committed any crime.

If Prime TV’s broadcasting licence is valid and its journalists have satisfied the accreditation process with the Zambia News and Information Services (ZANIS) to gain access to public institutions and cover State events, what reason does the minister have for revoking that and imposing such sanctions? Government institutions don’t belong to people who occupy them, they belong to the people of Zambia. State House doesn’t belong to President Edgar Lungu or the Patriotic Front, it belongs to the people of Zambia. That’s why it’s called a public institution. Every citizen of this country is at liberty to walk to State House any day and seek to meet the President or to transact in any business they so wish. Why should the minister introduce laws that don’t exist?

These are the things that we keep talking about when it comes to the freedom of the press in this country. The question we have now is; why should media practitioners trust that this government means well with the media regulation bill? Assuming that bill had been passed into law, what would happened to the Prime TV journalists’ practicing licences today? Their licences would have been revoked. This is the reason why we refuse to support this statutory media regulation bill because we know that it’s a weapon for canning critical journalists. It’s a tool for suppressing private media.

Honourable Siliya is a journalist, a highly qualified one with years of experience for that matter. She is the last person we should be hearing such things from. As a veteran broadcaster herself, she owes this country a duty to provide counsel that strengthens media houses instead of weakening them. If Honourable Siliya felt that the Prime TV proprietor was acting inconsiderably to a request from the government, she had the option of summoning him and engaging in progressive talk that would have produced a win-win situation. That’s the wisdom that Honourable Siliya is denying us.

We remember how excited we were when Honourable Siliya was transferred from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Ministry of Information. We were happy that President Edgar Lungu had given us a fellow practitioner who understands the industry. Recently when President Lungu appointed Mr Amos Malupenga as Permanent Secretary, we were further overjoyed because we felt together, those two brought on board incomparable media experience from both Public and Private media. These people who are running the Ministry of Information know exactly how hard it is to survive in this industry. Journalists are frustrated enough and it is not necessary to make their lives harder.

During such hard economic times, we expect the government to go out of its way in supporting businesses that are offering the very employment which this regime has failed to create. In light of the Coronavirus, Honourable Siliya and her government should have instead identified businesses in the frontiers of defence against the COVID-19 and offered them incentives like Tax rebates or tax waivers of some kind. This would not only be restricted to the media alone, it would include businesses such as Trade Kings and others who are in the business of manufacturing hygiene products. That’s what you do, instead of going to Trade Kings and bullying them to start dishing out free hand sanitisers.

The sanctions imposed on Prime TV are very unfair and we wonder what kind of government reacts so emotionally like this. Institutions of governance should not be emotional. In any case, Prime TV is not a public broadcaster, it’s a private business owned and controlled by a private businessman. This businessman has workers to pay. He needs adverts, paid for adverts to pay his employees. This is the same income that keeps public media in business too. If anyone today in Zambia went to ZNBC and requested the director general for two minutes airtime to make a funeral announcement for free, you will be lucky if they just chase you away without arresting you for trespassing. So why does the Minister expect Prime TV to show the kind of patriotism that institutions under her charge cannot show to any needy citizen?

Mind you, Honourable Siliya, Mr Shawa pays TV levy whether he watches ZNBC or not. It’s law that he has to pay, just like any other citizen who owns a television set. But you madam, you pay nothing to watch Prime TV. That station doesn’t survive on TV levy or any government grants, it needs advertising support. That’s what Mr Shawa was trying to show you. And he has a point when he says you want Prime TV coverage because fewer people now watch ZNBC. This is a fact, that’s what has angered government. But they shouldn’t be angry, they should just pay. Why should Prime TV do it for free while public media gets paid?

Look at how government distributes its expenditure on advertising. Ministries and State Owned Enterprises take all their advertising money to government owned media houses and a few private ones which publish government propaganda. Zambia Daily Mail and ZNBC are fully packed with government adverts, they don’t care how genuine private media houses are surviving. But when a crisis comes knocking, suddenly their own media institutions are deemed useless and they rush to private media demanding for free advertising space – with arrogance for that matter! No, bwana, it doesn’t work that way.

We encourage Prime TV to go to court and challenge the sanctions imposed by the Minister. It’s an irrational decision with no moral or legal backing.