Press freedom has been grossly undermined in Zambia

Dora Siliya, the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services, says the proliferation of media institutions in Zambia calls for the strengthening of libel and defamation laws.

“The media are there to serve the public and the public must be protected from bad media and good media must be encouraged,”

says Dora.

Officiating at the 10th anniversary of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalism in Johannesburg in 2002, Nelson Mandela warned, “None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to even suggest faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced.”

Today press freedom in Zambia is being grossly undermined by Edgar Lungu and his minions.

This is the worst it has been for press freedom in Zambia since July 1990.

It’s either a news media outlet supports them or it becomes a target of their tyrannical regime.

There’s no independent and critical press tolerated in Zambia today. Any news media outlet that tries to be independent and critical is “crushed like a tonne of bricks” – the Zambia Revenue Authority, the Independent Broadcasting Authority, ZICTA and other state agencies are mobilised to cripple it.

But as John McCain correctly observed, “We need a free press. We must have it. It’s vital. If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, we would lose so much of our individual liberties overtime.”

To govern is to communicate. And the arena for communication and public debate is increasingly becoming dominated by the news media: newspapers, radio and television, magazines, online publications.

The news media in a democracy have a number of overlapping but distinctive functions. One is to inform and educate. To make intelligent decisions about public policy, people need accurate, timely, unbiased information. And because opinions diverge, they also need access to a wide range of viewpoints. This role is especially important during election campaigns, when few voters have the opportunity to see, much less talk with, candidates in person. Instead, they must rely on newspapers, radio and television to explain the issues and characterise the respective positions of candidates and their political parties.

The second function of the media is to serve as a watchdog over government and other institutions in society. By holding to a standard of independence and objectivity, however imperfectly, the news media can expose the truth behind the claims of government and hold public officials accountable for their actions.

If they choose, the media can also take a more active role in public debate. Through editorial comments or investigative reporting and analysis, the media can campaign for specific policies or reforms that they feel should be enacted. They can also serve as a forum for organisations and individuals to express their opinions through letters to the editor and the publishing of columns with divergent points of view.

Another increasingly important role of the media is “setting the agenda”. Since they can’t report everything, the news media must choose which issues to report and which to ignore. In short, they decide what is news and what isn’t. These decisions, in turn, influence the public’s perception of what issues are most important. However, in a democracy, unlike in countries where the news media is government-controlled, they cannot simply manipulate or disregard issues at will. Their competitors, after all, as well as the government itself, are free to call attention to their own list of important issues.

Few would argue that the news media always carries out these functions responsibly. Newspaper reporters and television correspondents may aspire to a standard of objectivity, but the news is inevitably filtered through the biases and sensibilities of individuals and the enterprises for which they work. They can be sensational, superficial, intrusive, inaccurate and inflammatory. The solution is not to devise laws and practices that set some arbitrary definition of responsibility or to licence journalists, but to broaden the level of public discourse so that citizens can better sift through the chaff of misinformation and rhetoric to find the kernels of truth.

The approach adopted by Edgar’s government to muzzle the press must be resisted by all Zambians.

Acceptance by government of an independent and critical press is a measure of the maturity of a nation. An independent and critical press stands as one of the great interpreters between the government and the people. To allow it to be muzzled is to muzzle ourselves.

The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of human rights and democracy and we must never allow it to be restrained by this despotic government of Edgar.

It is said that numerous politicians have seized absolute power and muzzled the press, but never in history has the press seized absolute power and muzzled the politicians. This country and its press will rise or fall together. Without freedom of the press, there can be no representative government. The cornerstone of democracy is an independent and critical press. The people must know before they can act, and there is no educator to compare with the press.

The most effective check and balance on government has been an independent and critical press which maintains its credibility by ensuring that its criticism is based on fact. The moment we no longer have an Independent and critical press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed.

And as George Orwell wrote, “Without a free press and the right of assembly, it is impossible not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being, or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.” The prime value of independent and critical journalism is that it imposes transparency, and thus accountability, on those who wield the greatest governmental and corporate power.

The administration of government has become more complex, the opportunities for malfeasance and corruption have multiplied, crime has grown to most serious proportions, and the danger of its protection by unfaithful officials and of the impairment of the fundamental security of life and property by criminal alliances and official neglect, emphasises the primary need of a vigilant and courageous press.

And Thomas Jefferson said, “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary to keep the waters pure…The functionaries of every government have propensities to command at will the liberty and property of their constituents. There is no safe deposit for these but with the people themselves, nor can they be safe with them without information. Where the press is free, and every man able to read, all is safe.”

It is understandable why James Madison, the father of United States Constitution, the one who prepared its first draft, wrote, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a Government without newspapers or newspapers without a Government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter…A popular government without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

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