DR FRED M’membe says journalism is a profession by occupation and not by certificates, diplomas or degrees.
He asks who will determine what knowledge and skills someone should learn and be able to demonstrate to get a journalism licence.
Dr M’membe, a journalist, former managing director and editor-in-chief of The Post newspaper (in liquidation), was reflecting on the recently approved, in principle, government bill to regulate the media and licence journalists in Zambia.
In his reflections, sent to The Mast from Mwika Royal Village in Chinsali, Dr M’membe said the government’s decision to indirectly licence journalists, through some media council, was ill-intentioned and that it won’t achieve anything good.
“After 26 years of producing and editing one of Zambia’s biggest newspapers, I think I can say that I have some reasonable understanding of journalism and the media in general,” Dr M’membe said.
“In addition to this, I am a PhD student in journalism and media studies and I am a recipient of many journalism and media awards. This should give me some reasonable understanding of journalism and the media.”
He argued that one did not need any technical skills – comparable in detail to the other professions – to write, shoot video, record audio, put it all together online and distribute it.
Dr M’membe said one could do all that, although perhaps badly, with almost no instruction.
“Journalism is a profession by occupation – and not by certificates, diplomas or degrees. It’s no more complex than figuring out how to use your smartphone and laptop,” he said. “Nonetheless, there’s no question that journalism schools teach would-be journalists much more than that –everything from defining a story to pitching it to editors, interviewing people, digging out information that authorities would prefer remain hidden, structuring and presenting stories to audiences in different formats, not to mention the hands-on experience with the technical elements – shooting, editing, data visualisation, content management systems, and so on and so forth – of online journalism.”
Dr M’membe added: “that gives journalism graduates the significant advantage of skills training when seeking employment — something someone with just a smartphone doesn’t have.”
He explained that licences meant there were certain rules one must obey or risk sanction.
“What are those rules for journalism? As one example, journalism schools tell students they should have at least two sources for every story. If that was applied in practice, every news organisation in Zambia would likely be sanctioned,” Dr M’membe noted. “Poor or bad journalism, fake news, bad reporting and sensationalism won’t end with the licensing of journalists.”
He said it would be much better to focus on educating audiences about the elements of good journalism and the cost of producing it, “what to look for when they see, listen to or read a news story and how to question and hold to account news organisations and journalists about their reporting.”
“That’s something both the educational system at all levels and the media itself can do,” Dr M’membe said. “Doctors, lawyers, and every other profession, great and humble, is directly or indirectly licensed by the State. But a journalist is granted the right to do what he or she does by a greater authority.”
Dr M’membe indicated that journalism was a human right protected by international conventions and “indeed Zambia’s Constitution”.
He said if the government could say who had the right to be a journalist, “that means you have a government that can say who isn’t allowed to be a journalist.”
“And that would mean the end of freedom of the press, of expression and the end of democracy. A good place to start when considering a proposed solution is to ask what problem that solution is aiming to fix,” Dr M’membe said, further asking what problem the bill was trying to fix.
“That’s a good way to approach suggestions that journalists should be licensed as a means to address concerns about poor journalism standards.”
Dr M’membe explained that poor journalism standards were not a new problem.
“It’s something that has been and will be with us forever. What’s new is not poor journalism standards, but the ability to distribute the products of poor journalism quickly, easily and widely online through social media,” he explained. “Licensing journalists can’t prevent that.”
Dr M’membe said poor journalism standards now seemed to mean factual information that those in positions of authority would rather not see published or broadcast – all the more reason to ensure it was distributed as quickly and widely as possible.
He noted that there were more questions to ask about licensing journalists.
Dr M’membe wondered how it would be determined who was a journalist at a time when anyone could distribute text, audio or video widely online.
“Traditional media are no longer information gatekeepers. Today a smartphone is all you need to become a ‘journalist’ and record, edit and distribute any chosen mixture of video, audio, photos, data and/or text,” Dr M’membe said.
“Strictly speaking, in today’s world a journalist is really any person whose main occupation is to contribute directly, either regularly or occasionally, for consideration, to the collection, writing or production of information for dissemination by the media, or anyone who assists such a person.”
He said such was a better way to look at a journalist, as any other way excluded anyone who starts a blog, tweets or distributes information other than through the media as it was once defined.
“Such individuals can produce and distribute whatever comes into their minds in whatever format they want, while facing the legal consequences if it’s libelous or violates some criminal laws. Others can pick it up and circulate it through social media,” Dr M’membe noted.
“Licensing journalists won’t certainly stop that.”
In the final analysis, Dr M’membe said it was difficult to compare journalism to self-regulating professions like doctors, lawyers, engineers and architects.
“Those professions require lengthy training, specific detailed knowledge and a demonstration that you can apply all that successfully to be given a licence. [But] journalism is a profession by occupation – and not by certificates, diplomas or degrees,” said Dr M’membe.