IN 2018 when the Zambian government announced a move to start hippo culling in the Luangwa River on grounds that the animals were destroying crops and dying from anthrax due to overpopulation, former US Ambassador to Zambia Daniel Foote raised a very wise argument. Despite being a conservationist, the diplomat did not condemn the Cabinet decision, instead he challenged the government to provide scientific proof showing that the grounds for culling were researched and factual.
“With all due respect to Zambia’s sovereignty, and I am not telling Zambia what to do, but reports today that Cabinet has approved a hippo cull on Luangwa River leaves me confounded. I have heard different reasoning, including anthrax and environmental degradation, carrying capacity of the valley, and now I’m hearing that it damages crops. I have heard all kinds of different reasons, all of which could be viable reasons, but I think anytime that we are talking about culling animals, we need to produce and publish the analysis and science behind that as to how that will lead to better sustainability of the species and better environmental balance before proceeding. As I said before, culling can be a viable conservation too, but there is a science behind it. I think it’s important to go through the scientific steps and to publish the results before carrying out culls,” said Ambassador Foote.
Like Ambassador Foote, news that last week’s Cabinet meeting approved the Statutory media regulation bill has left us disturbed. We are not here to simply rubbish the proposed Zambia Council for Journalists Bill in Parliament, which they say will provide for the establishment of a “self-regulatory professional body for journalists”. We are here to ask what research they did before arriving at this Bill.
We have heard all kinds of different reasons for this decision, some of which look like they make a lot of sense at a glance. We have heard that there is too much fake news being spread with the aid of social media; we have heard that journalism standards have fallen to unrecognisable standards; we have heard that the profession has been hijacked by unscrupulous individuals who abuse press freedom to perpetuate hate speech; we have heard that there is no professional body which oversees the conduct of journalists or an institution where people can report their complaints against journalists or media institutions.
Unfortunately, all this rhetoric is nothing but propaganda meant to deceive people who do not understand the media landscape in our country; people who are gullible enough to believe that the Patriotic Front government means well with this agenda. We say this because there is no research that has been done for the movers of this Bill to understand the level of qualifications among journalists in these media houses. There is no research that has been done to understand the trends in the spread of fake news – how it originates and what mediums are used. Our Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has not done a research to know why well-qualified journalists engage in unethical conduct such as taking brown envelopes to publish propaganda. If we ask our government leaders today how they think media houses survive and how much they pay their journalists per month, their answer will be a guess.
So we wonder why they want to impose statutory regulation in an industry that they have little knowledge about. Yes, we are saying they want to “impose” because this Bill has not come from journalists but from themselves. The consultation process which they refer to is an event where they transported journalists from all over the country, paid for their accommodation and food before asking them to state, by a show of hands, if they were in support of the Bill that the government was proposing.
Like the American Envoy said, when you make policies as government leaders, they should be backed by research and proof indicating that your decision is viable and sustainable. This Bill that they wish to take to Parliament, according to what they have told us, will dictate that all journalists affiliated to this council should have a prescribed level of qualification, without which, they will not be issued with a practicing licence. We have also been told that erring journalists will be punished by this council, which punishment could include withdrawal of the practicing licence.
This says everything that one needs to know about the agenda behind this bill. The target here is private media, and it has nothing to do with fixing the said lack of professionalism in the media. If they were displeased with the manner in which public media upholds journalism ethics, they would simply pick a call and give orders. But they don’t see anything wrong with how the public media operates, their issue is us the private media journalists. We are the target and they will not rest until they wield the power to give and take our rights to report news independently.
But we will not get tired reminding the Patriotic Front that these laws they are enacting will haunt them soon when they leave power. Good laws are those that you make for the benefit and enjoyment of ordinary people who are outside government because public service is not permanent. This particular statutory media regulation law being proposed is bad because it will be a subject of abuse once enacted. The current Minister of Information can claim to have good intentions, and maybe she means her words, but how much time is she remaining with in that office before another person takes over the instruments of power? What is the guarantee that the next minister will resist the temptation of abusing the law?
Dear readers, the Patriotic Front is up to no good with this Bill, mark our words.