Siliya’s Use of Private Station: an Admission Audiences Moved On from ZNBC
By Parkie Mbozi
ON 24 FEBRUARY 2020 Information and Broadcasting Minister Dora Siliya made an appearance on Prime TV, a private station. This was within 24 hours that opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) leader Hakainde Hachilema appeared on the same station for his ‘state of the nation address’, as some analysts called it.
For starters, I will not take away the accolades Hon Siliya was showered with for what observers described as a ‘mature’ and ‘objective’ elaboration of government position on gassing activities that had gripped the nation. Hitherto the issues attracted all manner of wild and ill-conceived and calculated accusations and counter accusations across political divides, even without merit nor evidence. Here is one of the accolades from his Royal Highness Senior Chief Mukuni, “For the first time I heard a minister speak wisely instead of finger pointing like others are doing against others when the police is still pursuing the matter. Please help me with her number if you can, I want to congratulate her.”
A statement like the following is what earned Hon Siliya the accolades, “What is happening in our country? I think to reduce it to just politics by us in government would not be the right thing. That’s why we are saying ‘let the police tell us.” She added, “These are criminal elements; there’s no excuse for politics here. Politicians are in the business of improving people’s lives. It is not for us in government to determine who is involved. We are waiting for the police to tell us and those people will go to court.”
It was hoped that these comments by the Chief Government Spokesperson would put finger pointing and knee-jerk reactions to gassing to rest.
On that score allow me to move on to the thesis (arguments) of my article: which is that Hon Siliya’s use of Prime TV is an indirect admission that the media resource at her free disposal (24/7), the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), has lost credibility and ultimately audience reach. Some have argued that she used Prime TV back-to-back with Mr Hichilema’s address to the nation in order to bequeath government’s response to him. I will not dwell on this narrative for the moment.
I will maintain my line of thought that for the Government Spokesperson to turn to Prime TV to address the nation on gassing – a hot topical of the moment – is an indirect admission that private TV and radio stations have ‘stolen’ some of ZNBC’s audiences (viewers and listeners).
Here is why I proffer this narrative. First and foremost, ZNBC is the almighty in broadcasting, the mother of all broadcasting – radio and TV – in Zambia. Until 1994 when Radio Phoenix started operating as the first private commercial radio station in Zambia since independence, ZNBC – operating as Zambia Broadcasting Services until 1988 – was the only operator of both TV and radio in the country.
Even now with over 30 TV and 130 radio stations operated by private, commercial and community interests, ZNBC remains the almighty broadcaster and the only one benefitting from direct public support through state and Public Private Partnerships investment, direct funding and licences and levies. In fact, since the amendment of the Independent Broadcasting (IBA) Act in 2017, the IBA collects TV levies on behalf of ZNBC. Clearly no other broadcasting station – radio or TV – enjoys so much resources as ZNBC. It explains its unassailable and exclusive capacity to be in every province and almost every district of the country.
The ZNBC also enjoys almost exclusive rights as content provider under the digital migration arrangement. It is also the only one with a license to broadcast across all corners of the country. So, all things being equal, there should be no reason for the Chief Government spokesperson to turn to private media, in some cases at a fee, to proffer official statements.
Yet despite all this monumental infrastructure and capacity, there is one reality which is beyond ZNBC’s control: the audiences (you and I the listeners and viewers alike). Despite all the massive resources and inputs at ZNBC’s exposal, the final judgement is on the taste of their pudding: their programmes. That’s where the audiences come in. With the current plurality of radio and TV stations, the audiences choose whom to turn to fulfil their needs and wants. As argued by scholars of the Uses and Gratification theory (e.g. Katz et al, 1974; Papacharissi, 2008), the media fulfil the daily needs of the consumers of their messages beyond being informed, educated and entertained.
From a related theory known as selective exposure, we know from research that audiences select which medium or programme to expose themselves and pay attention to and messages to retain for future use based on their needs, wants and prejudices.
Dexter and White (1964) thus observes that, “Human attention is highly selective. People learn to focus their attention on those aspects of their environment on which the satisfaction of their (Immediate) needs is dependent.” Research based on this theory is therefore conclusive that when a media organisation is perceived to be biased by either not covering one segment of the population or being unfair to it, the followers of the aggrieved group are likely to shun that medium and its programmes.
In the case of the ZNBC, all the election monitors for the 2016, 2015 and even 2011 elections reported biased coverage of the opposition, who command support from at least half of the country going by the 2016 general election. It is, therefore, plausible to conclude that ZNBC has lost a sizeable audience segment to some private media, which are perceived to be fair and balanced. Hon Siliya, as a media professional, is probably aware of this. The admission of biased coverage was also recognised by former Permanent Secretary Chanda Kasolo, in his media statement quoted by News Diggers on 11 March 2019. Dr Kasolo was magnanimous enough to advise the national broadcaster to address the vice as stated below.
“I was there two days ago. I was speaking to the Director of Programmes and also my good friend who runs the Sunday Interview Mr. Zulu (Grevazio) and I said to them, it’s about time we started improving our outlook and image of ZNBC. We must allow the opposition to come on certain programmes and also out their views. We must allow debate between opposition and ruling party MPs and Ministers. And I know that my honourable Minister (Dora) Siliya is very keen that we do that. We discussed at length.”
Sadly, the perceived biased coverage and loss of audiences hurts advertising too, which is the main and traditional source of revenue for mainstream media. Yet the perceived benefit from coverage that only favours the ruling party has never been sustainable nor always effective, otherwise Dr Kenneth Kaunda and Mr Rupiah Banda would never have been kicked out of power.
On the flip side, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) covers all the parties equally and fairly yet the ruling African National Congress (ANC) continues to be in power. Lesson: publish and leave it to the audiences – the masters – to judge. They are active and not unintelligent users of the media.
The author is media and communication scholar, research fellow and PhD candidate based in South Africa. He can be reached on: firstname.lastname@example.org.