Prime TV closure and the failure of advocacy

[By Parkie Mbozi]

PRIME Television, Zambia’s most vibrant and promising private broadcasting station, was closed on April 9, 2020, ostensibly after a public spat between its proprietor Gerald Shawa and information minister Dora Siliya on March 13, 2020 over funding for COVID-19 coverage.

Shawa’s ‘crime’ was challenging the government to provide resources for the ‘favours’ of covering COVID-19 it was asking for. His point: “you come to us when you are desperate and yet ignore or fail to pay your bills when things are okay.” Shawa further argued that Prime TV and other private stations were still owed from previous work done, notably election coverage.

Within days of that meeting, Siliya signed off a letter to all government departments and ministries, urging them to suspend all business dealings with the station. The worst was to come on 8th April 2020 when the station’s licence was cancelled and was ordered to shutdown “in the interest of public safety, security, peace, welfare or good order,” according the ‘Independent’ Broadcasting Authority (IBA). On 27th March , TopStar, a partly state-owned television signal carrier, removed Prime TV from its platform, denying it of a signal. In a letter dated 23rd April 2020, Siliya refused to entertain the station’s appeal, “because there was no existing license at the time IBA made the decision.” The rest, as they say, is history.

In this article I am peddling the narrative that the closure of Prime TV is as much an epitome of the repressiveness of the PF regime in its treatment of private and ‘unfriendly’ media as it is a failure of national advocacy. How so? Narrative 1: for starters, the PF will go down in annals of Zambia’s history as having closed the most number of private media establishments, whether it likes this tag or not and regardless of the reasons advanced. First, on 2nd November 2016, it was The Post, a once vibrant and (for a large period) model private print newspaper.

Muvi TV, another hitherto vibrant station, had its license revoked soon after the 2016 elections and many now believe it has never been the same since coming back. Some community and commercial radio stations, Komboni, Itezhi Tezhi (which is regarded as my baby) and a few others all had a taste of the PF medicine. Lest we forget, Prime TV’s troubles did not start this year. On 4th March 2019, the IBA revoked its license for a month, citing what the public perceived to be frivolous violations of the IBA Act.

Media historians will juxtapose the treatment of the media under the PF with the three state regimes before it: the colonial regime; UNIP and the MMD. We can discuss the private media that existed in these regimes on another day. Suffice to say, the three regimes all somewhat tolerated and allowed them to exist. Briefly, during its entire single party rule (1972 – 1990) UNIP’s only media opponent was the National Mirror, run by the Catholic Church. The National Mirror, prickly as UNIP regarded it, survived throughout the UNIP era until it (sadly) died a natural death in the 1990s. Likewise, The Post newspaper was arguably Frederick Chiluba and Rupiah Banda’s fiercest rival, from Day 1 of their respective presidencies, as we all remember, but both leaders resisted numerous temptations to shut it down. Chiluba would joke, “let them talk.”

The colonial regime allowed newspapers for Africans, such as the Central African Post, initiated by Dr Alexander Scot, former veep Guy Scot’s father, and The African Life, a newspaper published by Sikota Wina, a freedom fighter, to exist. The Central African Post still exists to-date as the Zambia Daily Mail.

In fact many Zambians still remember that the PF’s ascendance to power is largely credited to The Post newspaper. This may be an uncomfortable reality for the current PF leadership. Unfortunately, this chapter of history can never be re-written or wished away. So whatever reason the PF government may give, however it may want to hide under the IBA, Zambians will remember that it ‘killed’ two critical members of the fourth estate (the media), which is a vital ingredient of a thriving democracy. And the IBA will, unfortunately, be perceived as an accomplish to the ‘murder’, which is a deplorable reality for an institution that ought to be perceived to an independent arbiter.

Narrative 2: the ‘death’ of Prime TV is as much an epitome of failed advocacy. Advocacy is defined as “a political process by an individual or group which aims to influence public-policy and resource allocation decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions.” Advocacy takes many forms but my choice is one that involves power relations and defined as a, “series of actions taken and issues highlighted to change the “what is” into a “what should be”, considering that this “what should be” is a more decent and a more just society.” In short, advocacy is about getting good things done or stopping bad things from happening.

In the case of Prime TV and other media that have been affected under the guise of the IBA Act, advocacy failed when it matters: when the original Act was adulterated from “what was” to “what is” today. The founding fathers had a clear vision of what the IBA needed to be to give it a truly independent character – both in reality and in perception. Unfortunately, all that changed with two ill-conceived changes to the original Act.

The two changes to the original Act are the genesis of what we are witnessing today. So, what did the founding ‘fathers’ foresee and want to avoid? First, they wanted to see a truly independent broadcasting regulatory authority that would not only be fair but also seen to be fair. Like they say in law, justice must not only be delivered but also seen to be delivered. Below are summaries of what the original (2002) IBA Act provided on key principles and how it has been amended – you could be excused to say maimed – by the amendments of 2010 and 2017. Sadly, both amendments are an assault on the principle of (perceived) independence of the IBA.

The 2002 provision for an ‘Appointments Committee’,constituted by stakeholders (LAZ, MISA, PAZA, NGOCC, Church bodies, etc) for the purpose of recruiting (independent) IBA Board members through an open system, was totally deleted through the 2010 Amendment.

Composition of Board: having done away with the ‘Appointments Committee” the function of recruiting IBA board, the 2010 Amendment transferred the function to the minister. So, in the case of Prime TV, how would anyone expect the same minister who initiated the closure and appointed the IBA board to rescind her decision?

Appointment of board chair and vice would be done through internal elections (2002 Act). Currently the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Services (MIBS) permanent secretary either chairs himself/herself or appoints the chair, though not provided for in all three versions of the Act.

Appointment of director general would have been done by the Independently Constituted Board (2002 Act). The reality is MIBS handled this function in 2012 even before a board was in place. This happened at ZNBC and Times of Zambia as well.
Collection of television levy for ‘public service broadcasting’ (ZNBC the only public broadcaster, Section 22A of 2017 Act.). This was never there in the 2002 and 2010 amendments. It was introduced in the 2017 amendment.

Unfortunately, typical of what we have become as a society, few bothered to READ, pay ATTENTION and DO SOMETHING when the original Act was being amended – not once but twice. One would be justified to say that the Zambian society has become one of a reactive rather than pro-active people, complainants rather than actors, and a society that pays attention to generalities rather than the details.

During the 2010 amendment the ‘real’ opposition MPs were left to do battle in parliament but they did not have the numbers; more so that almost half of the MPs of the main opposition then – the PF – had switched allegiance to the ruling MMD. Adding his voice to the protest over suspension of Prime TV in 2019, then MMD faction leader Felix Mutati was quoted that, “suspension for me will injure tolerance” and added, “but they are denying the rest of us who enjoy the services to continue enjoying the services.” He would not remember that the Amendments the cabinet he was a member of made in 2010 made the most devastating changes to the original IBA Act. Another case of not paying attention to detail and being reactive rather than pro-active.

The way forward is for stakeholders to ‘dialogue’ over and re-look at the IBA Act and possibly un-do the deed that was done and ‘exorcise’ the curse. The closure of Prime TV is but a symptom of law we should have fought then but missed the chance to do so. Under the current legal framework perceptions of circus of justice for ‘erring media’ are justified.

The author is a media, governance and health communication researcher and scholar with the Institute of Economic and Social Research, University of Zambia. Send comment to: pmbozi5@yahoo.com.

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