Most media houses in Zambia are not making enough money to meet their operating expenses. There’s very little advertising being channeled to the news media outlets.
Newspapers are almost totally dependent on copy sales. But the circulation figures are also very small to enable them meet salaries, printing, circulation and editorial expenses. So how are they surviving?
Those owned by the state survive on government connected business or subsidies. But it’s not easy for them as the government doesn’t always pay. So they are struggling.
A number of news media outlets have been hired or hired themselves out to the ruling Patriotic Front. In this way they are able to get business from those getting government business or who want to be in good terms with those in power.
Starting under the MMD government of Rupiah Banda, some news media outlets, especially radio and television stations, started getting into financial deals with the ruling party. This practice has continued to this very day. There’s very little free or independent news being broadcast. News items are paid for.
Of course, there are a few that are trying very hard to be independent. But even them under a lot of pressure from journalists whose salaries are many months in arrears. Such journalists are vulnerable. They are often hired or hire themselves out to those with money, compromising the editorial independence of their news media outlets.
Therefore, the greatest threat to media freedom does not so much lurch in the bad laws but the economic and financial factors. Money is today the greatest threat to media freedom in Zambia.
In saying this we don’t mean that the creation of a conducive legal and constitutional framework for media freedom is not important or should be abandoned.
We agree with Roy Clarke.
Clarke’s observations and the need for the media to be allowed to exercise its role of making the government accountable.
“Those in power like to tell us that the role of the media is to inform, educate, and entertain. This definition, of course, nicely ignores the constitutional role of the media, which is also to hold power to account. This was the strident and explicit purpose of the press from its early beginnings in the eighteenth century in Europe. In those days, the press was the voice for the rising bourgeois class as they exposed the iniquities of the ruling aristocrats. For the media is not just a collection of journalists, but is also the link through which government hears the voices of the people,” says Clarke. “It follows from these considerations that the more Parliament and Judiciary collude with the Executive’s abuse of power, the more important it is for the media to fulfil its historic democratic role of holding power to account. The more government betrays the people, the more the media becomes the last bastion of democracy. But this point carries with it an awkward corollary: the more the government succeeds in exploiting the people they are supposed to serve, the more they try to muzzle the media. Government can use oppressive anti-media laws to control and restrict the media, crippling the media’s independence and therefore crippling the media’s ability and capacity to hold power to account.”
And a media that is so weak financially is easy to manipulate, muzzle or coerce.
The poor salaries and other working conditions of journalists and other media workers is not helping matters. But media houses that are not making enough money cannot be expected to pay good salaries and on time. They can only give what they have. It’s impossible to improve the salaries of journalists without improving the earnings of news media outlets.
There’s no sensible way out of this but to improve the commercial and financial viability of news media outlets. But how can this be done in these circumstances? We also don’t know. And this is the question those concerned with media freedom issues should struggle to address.