By Robert Amsterdam
In every successful democracy, the role of a vibrant, independent media is crucially important, providing checks and balances, ensuring accountability of elected officials, and delivering a service to the public as the fourth estate. Society extends an enormous level of trust toward the owners, editors, and reporters working in this field, granting them the presumption of professionalism, that the information presented will be factual and as objective as possible.
But when the media fails to deliver on these responsibilities, it is a betrayal of the public trust of the highest order. This is precisely the case in Zambia, where the once-respected Post Newspaper has fallen into disrepute under a malicious and manipulative owner, Mr. Fred M’membe.
Among recent “articles” published in the Post were a highly inflammatory letter aimed at provoking ethnic violence (later exposed as a hoax), rabid attacks against the justice system (aimed at helping M’membe defraud taxpayers), smear campaigns against the defence minister attempting to engineer a takeover of the ruling party by the justice minister, and of course, numerous hagiographic flattering portraits of the glorious leader, President Michael Sata.
For a newspaper to be absolutely uncritical of a government and blind to its misconduct is one thing, but with M’membe and the Post, there is an enthusiastic willingness to play a complicit role in the construction of authoritarian anti-democratic system under the Patriotic Front, where constitutional rights to free expression and free association are being wiped out.
The most recent example of M’membe’s political corruption was published on November 10th, in which the editor used his newspaper platform to launch a full-throated attack against my client, the highly respected former President Rupiah Banda. President Banda, who has spent the past few months on a speaking tour on behalf of the African Presidential Center of Boston University, has long been targeted by the Post for slanderous, defamatory attacks, which appear to increase in intensity in response to the former head of state’s distinguished international profile.
Mr. M’membe is entitled to his own opinion, but he is not entitled to his own facts. His article smacks of the worst kind of yellow journalism, where innuendo replaces information, malice takes the place of reporting, and undisguised personal motives are masqueraded as public interest.
The fact is, whether or not you agreed with the policies of President Banda, he oversaw one of Zambia’s strongest periods of stability and economic growth, and firmly upheld democratic ideals even when the outcome resulted in the transition to the opposition. In voluntarily stepping down from power following an election, President Banda set a new standard and expectation for African leaders, which is a powerful contribution to history.
But of course, no one is even taking M’membe seriously anymore. For those with longer memories, they will recall the fantastic hypocrisy shown by the newspaper in its full reversal from being the top detractor to #1 supporter of President Michael Sata and the Patriotic Front. This paper, which once boasted that it successfully tricked Zambians into putting their man into power, was formerly very critical of President Sata.
In a 2006 editorial penned by M’membe entitled “Sata is not our messiah,” the editor argued, “it is not difficult for anyone to realize or guess why Mr. Sata today has become the most ardent defender of people who plundered public resources. This is simply because they are his financiers.”
M’membe’s editorial also pointed to the president’s alleged connection to political violence: “In 2001 we saw Sata as national secretary of the MMD unleash a corruption-funded thuggery on Chiluba’s political opponents within the MMD. Ministers who did not agree with the third-term campaign–which Sata was championing–were being beaten and harassed in all sorts of ways.”
Nowadays, of course, you will read nothing but glowing endorsements of Sata and the PF, while numerous important stories of government misconduct go unreported. So how can we ever trust what they publish?
There are currently more than a dozen government officials that formerly worked at The Post – while many others are held in check by promises of future employment. These former journalists now play the role of propagandists, and are reportedly very assertive in policing a new regime of censorship among the media community.
M’membe’s dedication to publishing fake news and malicious attack articles against the former president is both a function of personal envy and his political subordination to the PF. During President Banda’s term, M’membe was an investor in the struggling Zambian Airways along with the current Director of Public Prosecutions, Mutembo Nchito. Apparently the two men approached the government and demanded some form of concession, and when refused, seethed with rancor that the government was not willing to give them special treatment and business privileges.
M’membe and Nchito also racked up a K14 billion debt with the state-owned Development Bank of Zambia (DBZ) which they have refused to pay back, prompting an entire humiliating fiasco as three judges were illegally fired by their friends in the PF in an attempt to escape liability, bringing the entire reputation of Zambia’s legal system into doubt.
While it’s clear that you can’t take anything you read in the Post at face value, the real mistake is our expectation that the what the Post is publishing is “news.” Instead what the Post has become is just another printed product with an entirely different ideological purpose that has nothing to do with information in the public interest.
As a result, the subscriber base of the Post has rapidly dwindled, as public trust in the media sinks to an all-time low in Zambia. The damage caused to the country is significant, as the people have been deprived of an independent media that can hold the leadership to account.
In the beginning, M’membe thought he was a clever rainmaker for President Sata, putting him into power. But now the shoe is on the other foot, and he finds himself trapped working under a despot, with no independent ability to function. So the next time you pick up a copy of The Post and see yet another diatribe from M’membe, just remember that this is the sound of a paid henchman afraid to sound out of tune.
Fred M’membe owes a duty to each one of us to report the news. By selling out so completely as he has to the Patriotic Front, he has left the people of Zambia without the instruments that they deserve to hold this government accountable. In the end, Fred violates the rights of each of us, each and every day.