By Isaac Mwanza

Who are to watch the watchmen? The people themselves.” – James Mill

[Continued from yesterday]

More than ever before, we live in a time when the role of media is high on the public agenda, criticism of the media is in abundance and the spread of fake news is on the rise, not only in Zambia but in most parts of the world where the media is considered to be free or independent. Questions have arisen as to how free or independent the media is, when its output does not differ from what is put out by the government’s own information outlets, such as government spokespersons.

This scenario raises the question of how to make the media accountable through some form of regulation, with the bigger question being, to whom should the media be accountable?

ATTEMPTS ON MEDIA REGULATION

In the mid-to late 2000s, efforts were made to work out mechanisms for media self-regulation by both the Media Ethics Council of Zambia and Zambia Media Ethics Council (ZAMEC). Unfortunately, these attempts at media self-regulation, were unsuccessful.

This had the effect of opening the way to a hybrid co-regulation also referred to as statutory self-regulatory framework which the media has now opposed because of the manner the original draft bill drafted by the media itself has been adulterated by draftspersons at the Ministry of Justice who have provided for criminal sanctions.

It must be understood from the beginning that co-regulation, also referred to as statutory self-regulation, is a framework which allows the media to self-regulate but is backed by statute that binds everyone to such regulation. An example of a statutory self-regulatory framework is that of the legal profession in Zambia through the Law Association of Zambia, birthed by an Act of Parliament.

Further attempts by the State to pass legislation to regulate the media, were thwarted by the vigilant private media which effectively used the power of the pen against government’s moves in that direction.

Recently, efforts have been made by the media itself, led by the Media Liaison Committee, to draft its own self-regulatory bill along similar lines to statutory self-regulation of the legal profession in Zambia, through the Law Association of Zambia and Legal Practitioners Acts.

According to information available in the public domain, the Ministry of Justice re-drafted the Bill which was proposed by the media itself, making it unacceptable to media owners.

The 1973 LAZ Act, although drafted during the one-party era, is a model of a successful statutory self-regulatory mechanism that gives the legal profession to control or self-regulate itself, rather than the government. This author is of the view that this is the model which should be pursued by the media and NGOs, for many obvious reasons.

However, the history of statutory regulation of the media through the Independent Broadcasting Authority as well as regulation of NGOs through the current NGO Act not only show weaknesses in statutory regulatory mechanisms, but also exposes what has been termed as the insatiable appetite by the State to regulate and control both the media and civil society.

The media has justifiable grounds to reject a Bill which has deviated from the original statutory self-regulatory process which was envisaged when the media had itself drafted and provided government with the draft bill.

The inclusion of criminally punitive and draconian clauses in the draft bill as well as bringing on board public officials on the media regulatory board and council should be rejected. But that said, a common ground can be achieved, and government must not be rigid.

SHOULD ZAMBIAN MEDIA BE REGULATED?

In Zambia, the media has been instrumental in the people’s quest to realise and exercise the right to freedom of expression which is protected by Article 20 of the Constitution.

Most importantly, the media has played a crucial role in holding politicians and other state officials accountable. Accountability of the executive, legislature and Judiciary to the people from whom the power they exercise is drawn, cannot be attained without a media that is free but also accountable.

It is therefore important that the public also holds to account, both media institutions and individuals such as journalists who monitor the state. Both must be held accountable for their stories, words and actions.

The media, while serving as autonomous agents of accountability, are themselves not immune from operating within the parameters of accountability based on ethical principles and standards.

The media space in Zambia and worldwide is being invaded by people with no training in journalism, media ethics and practices. Some of these people who own and control media outlets purportedly edit the professional work of trained journalists and dictate what information must be fed to the public, against the professional works done by journalists.

In this scenario, professional media ethics are sacrificed. French communication scholar Jean-Claude Bertrand wrote:

For the past twenty years or so, I have been studying media ethics issues. And it has become clear to me that the survival of humanity depends on it. More clearly, this survival depends on the generalization of democracy; there can be no democracy without freedom of the press; this freedom cannot survive without deontology. When media freedom is abused out of an exaggerated desire for profit and the public is then poorly served, user discontent can be used by governments to restrict freedom.”

It is important that citizens not only trust the news media with truthfulness in reporting and unbiased coverage but also hold the media accountable for the information that it feeds them, Bertrand thus points out the delicate balance of media freedom as a privilege as well as a responsibility.

When such a balance is upset, the role and capacity of media to support the country democratic development becomes at risk. On the other hand, a high level of media accountability may lead to a high degree of citizens trusting the news media.

[To be continued on Monday]

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