Journalists create another useless, toothless body

When the two-day media conference held at Pamodzi Hotel held on 11th and 12th April 2010, ended with the adoption of a Code of Ethics and Constitution, architects of the a few months process congratulated themselves for a milestone achievement.
But the celebrations were misplaced. Zambia Media Council (ZAMEC) the ethics body they had created was toothless, impotent, and cannot in anyway pass for a regulator of the media.
The Prophesy that predicted the process doom came to pass and was eerily fulfilled.
ZAMEC places no sanctions of any kind for individuals and media houses that will flout or breach ethics and its practices or be guilty of professional misconduct. It also has no deterrent mechanism for media houses carrying out irresponsible reporting, breaking the code, or refusing to submit to the authority of it.
ZAMEC was intended to be a watchdog of media ethics but has sadly turned out to be a pet and lapdog (likely a fluffy Chihuahua) for future offenders of media ethics.
It is deemed that The Post who everyone is concerned about is a known and prominent offender of media ethics with its vile editorials, stories that offend ethical practices, obscene pictures (such as the famous picture of a suicide victim still hanging deathly to the ropes), and regular nude and lewd pictures in its weekend editions, would probably be the chief beneficiary of this sterile outcome.
In fact many contend that the media in Zambia does not need any form of regulation as it has acted relatively above board and as carried out its function with mature restraint, except The Post.
Therefore if any regulation was required, it was for The Post which has turned freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of expression into hate speech and hate campaigns against its helpless victims.
If any regulator was needed, it was for The Post which has constantly been the subject of complaints for their regular ethical breaches and practices that is usually justified as pursuit of truth.
There has been a rallying call that the media in Zambia ought to be regulated. The fragrant abuse of these institutions for political purposes has angered both foes and friends of the media. Many were frustrated by the failure for the self regulated Media Council of Zambia (MECOZ) that failed to exercise its authority on its members and over institutions that refused to submit to it or be members such as The Post.
In exasperation, Government began in 2009, to draft a process that would lead to a statutory media regulation body. The media associations and the independent media led by The Post started a parallel process to create a self regulatory mechanism. They forgot that MECOZ exists!
MECOZ was quickly shunned and shelved and the new process was hailed as historical since The Post and its organization, Press Freedom Committee of The Post, were members!
Although the Media Liaison Committee (MLC) chose to abolish MECOZ was marginally effective and its Council sat to hear cases. Compliance of its decisions was quite high especially by Times of Zambia and Daily Mail. There were isolated cases when media organization failed to publish retraction (Today Newspaper).
But the biggest failure was the non-participation of The Post who were subject of numerous complaints. The complaints could not be processed because The Post were not members and did not fall under its jurisdiction.
Even in cases where MECOZ issued activist statements in its capacity as a regulator condemning The Post for its derogatory and insulting language in its editorials, it issued further editorials ridiculing MECOZ.
But Times of Zambia totally complied as in the case of the Chipata Council Vs Times of Zambia.
The road leading up to the Pamodzi Hotel meeting was carefully crafted. Although attempts were made to achieve broad consensus especially among respected media organizations such as the Times of Zambia, Zambia Daily Mail and ZNBC, the outcome was inevitably doomed when The Post undertook special interest and participated with inert powers to drive the process.
The Post housed the Media Liaison Committee and acted as its secretariat. It also helped fund or source funds for most of the activities leading to the establishment of this process through its Press Freedom Committee (PFC).
On one hand, stakeholders were happy that The Post were active members but secretly feared the outcome of the process would betray the consensus thus far achieved.
Signatories to the Fringilla Consensus therefore participated with bated breath and promptly sent senior staff to the Media Conference to attempt to give it legitimacy and influence the outcome.
But the meeting at Pamodzi Hotel was skewed. It was skillfully designed to achieve exactly what ZAMEC turned out to be. The gathering appeared preselected and heavily populated by a posse of Catholics who were came through their radio stations and the Catholic Media Services.
This small meeting alone had over 5 catholic priests and 3 nuns led by Father Paul Samasumo (ZEC Spokesperson) of Catholic Media Services. Others priests came from their radio stations that included Father Wilbroad Mwape from Radio Icengelo, Father Freebog Kibombwe of Radio Liseli and sisters led by Rose Nyondo.
Conspicuously missing were many known senior and prominent journalists, media practitioners and other media personalities. Although a few senior journalists such as Jeff Sitali and Switen Hangala could be spotted, they came to the Conference in their capacity as media owners. The conference failed to live up to its billed theme of ‘’Stakeholders Conference’’.
The work at Pamodzi was preceded by earlier work done through an exclusive process done at Fringilla (a B and B facility) in Chisamba by leaders of the media association gathered together under the umbrella of the Media Liaison Committee (MLC) and came as draft for the Conference.
The donors fearing an ‘’undemocratic’’ statutory media regulatory mechanism had quickly supported the process by media associations and hoped that the success of this process would fend off government intentions to regulate the media and help it establish a credible self-regulatory mechanism.
They must too be disappointed with the out-come as ZAMEC other than the concerns of its ineffective tools, is likely to spur government to proceed and set-up a statutory regulatory mechanism. The investment in time and financial resources so far appear wasted.
But the so called Fringilla Consensus was a shameful piece of work. The drafts (Code of Ethics and Draft Constitution) provided for Gay Rights, reduced Media Regulation to voluntary participation and submission, provided ZAMEC with clipped powers to regulate or promote ethical practices rendering it toothless and useless. The drafts also limited Jurisdiction of ZAMEC to listed members only whose participation is voluntary!
All have agreed that Media Regulation is a must and totally relevant to the survival and growth of a decent media landscape.
The debate therefore has only been whether Zambia needed a statutory or self media regulation. It never made regulation optional.
Government abandoned its quest to enact a statutory regulatory framework and gave the media latitude to come up with its own but decent and acceptable self regulatory one.
But the media chose to squander this opportunity and missed a great chance to make amends for its intransigencies.
It was therefore strange that self regulation was reduced to VOLUNTARY self regulation! An exit strategy was even and deftly provided for, for individuals and media houses to withdraw from ZAMEC or reject its authority!
The Code itself as adopted was a brilliant document containing progressive provisions heavily borrowed from South Africa, Australia and United Kingdom Press Councils.
The Code promotes objective and responsible reporting. It bans obscene, indecent and pornographic material to be published or broadcast.
The Code also promotes reporting that respects culture and moral values of Zambia. It also encourages individual practitioners to abide by ethics and conduct themselves in a professional manner.
It also provided for other media related services such as advertising and artistry work to be regulated and submit to ethical practices.
The Code has potential to promote good and responsible journalism in Zambia.
The mischief is on the Constitution that creates ZAMEC.
The Constitution provides for voluntary membership. It also provides for exit clauses. It reduces ZAMEC Jurisdiction to listed members only.
It provides for an Eleven Member Governing Council appointed and/or elected from Lawyers, Civil Society, Women’s groups and Churches.
It sets up an Ethics Committee comprising Lawyers and Journalists. It also provides for an appeals panel headed by a lawyer qualified to be employed as a High Court Judge.
The Ethics Committee and its Appeals Committee have been given absolute powers to handle public complaints and banned any court process in the event that a dissatisfied or aggrieved party who participated in the proceedings emerges. The decisions of these internal courts are final!
This provisions flies in the face of the Republican Constitution that guarantees citizens fundamental rights to sue and appeal up-to the Supreme Court.
The Courts created under ZAMEC are mere tribunals and the provision of a waiver does not in any way take away the fundamental right by citizens to reserve the right to go to judicial court as so provided for in the country’s constitution.
Key provisions on voluntary membership and the clear lack of any deterring mechanisms or failure to make provisions for any minimum sanctions renders filed complaints, achieve academic outcomes. The lack of any sanctions or any punitive measures even to repeated or serial offenders renders the whole process useless despite its robust provisions on composition.
The complaints when laid would not inspire or give faith to members of the public as the outcome can only be a public reprimand in worst case scenarios.
Realising that the Conference had been manipulated and the media stood at the verge of missing a great opportunity, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Lt Gen. Ronnie Shikapwasha promptly wrote a letter to Henry Kabwe, Chairperson of the Media Liason Committee.
Shikapwasha urged the members to the Conference to adopt the Kenyan model that would guarantee compulsory compliance but regulated by the media itself.
Shikapwasha recognized that as adopted, ZAMEC falls short of a meaningful regulatory mechanism.
He bemoaned that as adopted, the framework would not be able to regulate the media in the country.
Shikapwasha informed the Conference that ZAMEC was doomed to be toothless and media regulation would be rendered unenforceable as created so far. He urged the Conference to adopt the Kenyan Model that would strike a realistic balance between government concerns and media rights and freedoms.
Naturally, the debate by media organizations should be dwelling on the need to expand and enhance freedoms of expression, freedom of speech and freedom of the press and not the debate to curb or curtail such rights. It is clear that certain sections of the media have acted so irresponsible that there is an urgent need to promote objective and responsible reporting through regulatory mechanisms.
The failure by media stakeholders to establish a respectful media ethics council gives government and all doomsayers an opportunity, as feared, to impose a regulatory mechanism on the media.
This is the only process that had attempted to achieve broad consensus among stakeholders and the failure to establish a proper regulatory framework is genuinely regrettable.
The debate will revert to a shouting match between government and the media associations leaving government with the chance to impose a statutory regulation.

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