Editorial comment written by Fred M’embe and published in his Post newspaper
IT’S very sad that things had to come to a point where the Zambian Watchdog website had to be blocked by state authorities.
We may not be sure if this is the right way of dealing with the perceived irresponsibility, transgressions and inadequacies of the Watchdog. But we are sure that something had to be done by the Watchdog itself and change its practices or other forces in society would be mobilised to stop or change their practices. French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte once remarked: ” I shall never tolerate the newspapers to say or do anything against my interest; they may publish a few little articles with just a little poison in them, but one fine morning somebody will shut their mouths.”
And Elizabeth Weise, a USA Today correspondent made an interesting observation in 1998: “Cyberspace is as adept at spreading rumour and innuendo as it is in transmitting fact – and is often blind to the distinction.” When someone anonymous says something disparaging about someone with a name, that’s a real problem. And this has been the problem with the Watchdog – identified people were being defamed every day by unidentified people hiding in cyberspace. In secrecy, those running the Watchdog wielded a lot of power. And it is a well known fact that power corrupts, and there is nothing more corrupting than power exercised in secret. Crimes were being committed against many innocent people who were left with little capacity or opportunity to defend themselves. Many citizens don’t know the people behind the Watchdog and if they had any offices anywhere in this country. Lives have been ruined by the Watchdog with impunity.
Under the protections and privileges of a free news media is the responsibility to act fairly. And the Watchdog as an online news media outlet is bound by the same rules that apply to the print media, television or radio. Suggesting that ‘new media’ needs ‘new rules’ to determine the ethics of online journalism is like suggesting that there by different laws for a 200-pound boulder and a soccer ball.
No one is looking for an angelic online news media from the Watchdog. A free press is not necessarily an angelic free press. But there has to be some ethical standards that are adhered to. If we do not live with ethics, not only as individuals but also as journalists, how can we teach or demand ethics from others in society?
In our zeal to exercise our rights, we have no right to terrorise innocent victims. Readers don’t expect us to be guided by situational ethics, to speak high-mindedly then to pursue every hiccup as if it were the truth. A fair press is a just press.
We dislike censorship. Like an appendix, it is useless when inert and dangerous when active. The minute you establish the principle that there can be exceptions to censorship for offensive speech, there is no principled way to limit it. The first exception will not be the last. Censorship can never be the solution. The only thing worse than out-of-control press acting with no regard for decency would be restricting that very same press. As Benjamin Franklin, printer and statesman observed in 1757, “it is ill-manners to silence a fool and cruelty to let him go on”.
But there has to be responsibility also on the part of the press. There are things that can be done and things that can’t be done. The press has the responsibility not only to report the truth, but to do so with a sense of accountability and decorum.
We journalists shouldn’t cheat ourselves that democratic politics, which alone underwrites our craft, is a self-perpetuating machine that can withstand any amount of undermining. It breaks down, and when this happens, the consequences are well known and need no further disquisition. Media which are not free to criticize government, or that are not representative of the broad spectrum of society, are inherently limited in their capacity to support and bolster democracy.
In a world of one-point political agendas and armies of spin doctors trying to tailor the truth, a free press has to be more vigilant, professional and courageous than ever before.
And it is clear from the conduct of our online publications like the Watchdog that the heaviest restriction upon the freedom of public opinion is not the official censorship of the press, but the unofficial censorship by a press which exists not so much to express opinion as to manufacture it. There’s no press where everything goes that can expect to survive for a long time. We all know that when truth is no longer free, freedom is no longer real. All freedom springs from necessity.
The tragedy with journalism lies in its impermanence; the very topicality which gives it brilliance condemns it to an early death.
There are too many lies being peddled in our online publications. This is not to say news media outlets can’t get anything wrong. We all do get things wrong – it’s a fact of life. But there is a difference between one who cares about telling the truth and one who doesn’t care about telling lies. Our online publications, especially the Watchdog, do not seem to care much about truth and lies. One can be taught about what is meant by honesty in journalism but one cannot be taught to be honest.
However, in any given discipline, there are people who pursue it with honour and with decency and there are people who don’t. To say all the online media are terrible wouldn’t be quite accurate or fair because there are those who try to do a good job and in an honest way.
The first duty of any new media outlet is to be accurate. If it be accurate, it follows that it is fair.
In the electronic age, the argument that something is ‘out there’ could justify printing almost anything – which compels us to remember that what separates news media outlets from ‘out there’ is editors. We must edit – not to stifle conflict or conviction but to eliminate debasement. Anything can be posted on our online publications. One can say anything about anyone on these online publications with impunity. How is this possible? What are the consequences of allowing this to continue?
We hope the other online publications are learning something from the experiences of the Watchdog, and that their editors will start to edit comments from their readers before they are posted. They have to take responsibility for everything that is published on their websites. The comments that come from readers are their responsibility. These are the same rules and standards that apply to the print media, television and radio stations, and they are not exempt from them.
While enjoying our freedom of expression and indeed press, it is wise to remember that the toes we are stepping on today may be connected to the rump that we must kiss tomorrow. We should tell the truth as only intellectual honesty can discern the truth. We should do what is in conscience needful and right. No set of professional ethics is better than your own personal ethics.
We maintain that if we in the press are hated anywhere, it is because we have failed to maintain the proper standards.
All people know the same truth. Our lives consist of how we choose to distort it. For a journalist, freedom starts when he decides to tell the truth. Committed journalism is so important that it is constitutionally protected. We need to think all the time about what we are doing with that privilege. When we write without moral perspective, it is said we are like the atheist in his coffin: all dressed up and no place to go.
We all want to do right and do well. But if you don’t do well, you are not going to be in a position to do right. There are laws to protect the freedom of the press’ speech, but none that are worth anything to protect the people from the press, especially the anonymous online press. This has to change. The people too deserve protection. Their privacy and human dignity is not something they are merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.
These are issues we need to reflect and meditate over deeply as we address the issue of the Watchdog’s blocking. It shouldn’t be denunciations for the sake of denunciation or condemnations for the sake of condemnation. Some of the things that have been going on in our online publications are worse than the British media hacking scandals. There, journalists were arrested for their criminal behaviour and no one criticised, condemned or called the British authorities tyrants or dictators. All the journalists kept quiet while their colleagues who had committed crimes were being visited by the law. Even the so-called human rights organisations that defend freedom of expression and of the press kept quiet and watched. The News of The World weekly newspaper, which was at the centre of the hacking scandals, had to close. We didn’t hear much being said. In this case, let reason and principles prevail as in the case of the hacking scandal.