Well may be "war" is a little too dramatic, but something is definitely afoot among Zambian journalists over the proposal by some of their friends to create a new statutory body that regulates the media. Actually, in practice what they want is to extend the powers of current Media Ethics Council of Zambia (MECOZ) so that it becomes a statutory body with legal powers to call journalists to account. You guessed it, the "journalists" in question are current members of MECOZ! A quick glance at a recent Post editorial and Gershom's blog gives a sense of the opposition. This post published in The Post gives the MECOZ perspective on things (on Maravi's blog you can see other articles on the MECOZ saga).
Now the arguments seems to be a bit confusing, but from what I gather the MECOZ journalists are very keen for the new draft constitution, currently being considered by the NCC, to turn them into Regulators of the media (don't laugh!). They will now become our guardians of all media standards (and presumably "all truth"?). By the way most of the MECOZ chaps are all government controlled media types. That is, they are mostly from the state controlled media. Why does that matter ? Well because The Post, Zambia's most independent newspaper has always refused to be part of MECOZ. The Post apparently does not believe in a regulated media industry. By the way, when I say "independent", I mean the Post is private owned, not that it is independent from government ownership in practical sense. I happen to think the Post is as politically independent as the Murdoch press. They are captured by other powerful political interests. In fact many people believe it to be very pro Mwanawasa, as evidenced by their swift announcement of the winner of the last election even before the Electoral Authority was half way through the count, and their silence over the current Mwanawasa incapacity saga. Anyway, we are sidetracking now - those are matters for some other time, including a fascinating post I would like to do one day, when I am bored, on how The Post has hindered rather helped widened media freedom. The main point is that the Post believes MECOZ is a sham, and that its quest for a Regulator is evidence of intellectual prostitution possibly bordering on corruption.
For their part, MECOZ believe opponets of regulation are irrational! By the way, MECOZ is not actually alone, its supported by MPs. May be not recently, but the idea of regulation was muted a while back by members of the opposition, who used the lack of media regulation as the basis for being cautious of the Freedom of Information Bill. Anyway, we should not forget that even though we may not like the messenger (a state captured one), that does not mean the message is bad! Media regulation is not a new concept and many countries have it with different degrees. What matters is why MECOZ want to become that regulator. Just what is the problem they hope to solve?
That's where it becomes a bit puzzling. Its not obvious at all, but this explanation given by the disgruntled Bestone Ng’onga, Media Trust Fund executive secretary, in response to Gershom's earlier National Mirror column provides a clue :
"..I have just been reading your article in the National Mirror and thought I should put you in the know because you seemed misguided and accused your brother, Beenwell (Mwale), for nothing.... some members of [MECOZ]... assisted by our learned lawyers present argued that if MECOZ was to gain the credibility it deserves in ensuring press freedom, ethical conduct of media practitioners etc, it needed to have some enforceable powers.So, the problem for Mr Ng'onga is that a few bad apples are spoiling the reputation for other journalists and the solution is to have a "media baby?" These bad appleas are destroying a profession that feeds many mouths. In economist language, a few bad apples appear to impose external costs on other journalists which aren't fully internalise by the bad apples! I suppose Mr Ng'onga would also have us note that these external costs have negative impacts on society...though I can't immediately imagine what he may have in mind. Okay, so that is Mr Ng'onga's problem. Now comes the next question, whats the solution? Actually let me rephrase that question in the way Mr Ng'onga and MECOZ would prefer to ask it, "why do we need to regulate the industry?" Bizarre question to ask I know, but that's exactly how MECOZ have proceeded, so lets pretend along.
In its current state where its constitution says it should be non statutory, voluntary and self-regulatory, it would be difficult for it to enforce the codes on the journalists and media organisations and institutions because any media personnel or institution found wanting would choose not to abide by MECOZ adjudication and may even decide to withdraw, thereby condoning unethical behaviour especially from such people who claim to be journalists and yet they are not, but tread on personal agenda.
Mr. Ndhlovu, do not tell me you do not know about such people who have tarnished the image of our profession. ..During that debate, members of the meeting resolved that to give MECOZ the teeth to ensure the media self-regulate themselves, it needed to be given legal powers to adjudicate cases brought to it by the general public and thereby reduce the time and cases of legal redress through courts of law. It was resolved that MECOZ should be legislated like the Law Association of Zambia, the Zambia Institute of Certified Accounts, the Engineering Regulation Board so that the Government would have no excuse of imposing itself on the media. This does not mean Government would be involved in the running of MECOZ but this would entirely be the media baby...."
Now this is when it gets a bit tricky, because it strikes me that regulation of an industry only becomes important if there's actually something wrong with the market or industry, or you expect something to go wrong in the immediate future, so you take early preventative action to put a Regulator in place. All perfectly reasonable of course. Mr Ng'onga probably thinks that with the media market growing we are likely to see even more rogue journalists from fake universities practising journalism, further exacerbating the "market for lemons" (sorry for evoking visions of lemons in the context of journalism - i know the similarity can only be too obvious).
Anyway Mr Ng'onga has got it wrong of course because every one (apart from a journalist from a fake university) knows that regulation is the last resort. In any market, the act of putting a regulator, with every likelihood of being captured both by the market and other powerful interests must be the last resort after all else fails. We should do that only if other mechanisms have failed to correct the perceived the problem (bad journalistic apples). I am happy to stand alongside Mr Ng'onga, "shoulder to shoulder" like Blair and Bush, if other options have been tried and failed. I am just not convinced that has happened.
So what are the other options? Thankfully, there are other journalists out there who have their thinking caps on. And yes, they never went to the fake universities that Mr Ng'onga is so worried about. Gershom provides one of the options (underline "one of" for there are many options, just see this fascinating exchange on a different market) :
"...I still want to disagree with Mr Ng’onga, a former workmate at the Zambia Daily Mail. The best media regulator is the market and not some state-regulated busy bodies who want to even prescribe what words to use when writing stories.But let me go further than Gersh went. Having accepted that the market is the first recourse, the next question is to ask whether the market is healthy. Is there dynamism and competition within it? Is the Zambia media market as competitive as it ought to be? The answer clearly is no. Yeah you guessed, its those MECOZ chaps again. The Daily Mail and The Times are all government owned and continue to leverage market power supported by the state machinery. But is even worse. In fact, because the Daily Mail and the Times have lost all credibility ( I like the Sunday Mail though), it has allowed The Post to become this inefficient and dangerous player in the "independent media market". So not only is competition poor across the newspapers, but actually the "independent" niche itself is dominated by a single player (bloggers arise and take your mantle!...and while you are it push government for an effective ICT policy because that is the only way to widen internet access). I'll stop myself from ranting here, because my position on the lack of competition in the industry is stated here. Suffices to say, that we need to sell these papers and implement key legislation that have already been passed relating to the independence of Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC), which government thus far has failed to implement (you can make laws, but the will to implement them is something else). So much for the drive towards transparency, but that another topic. The key point is that regulation becomes necessary if, and only if, competition fails to provide sufficient incentives to drive up standards.
Discerning readers would not want to associate themselves with nondescript rags of newspapers which do not adhere to media ethics. For starters, how many newspapers have folded up on the Zambian market because of their poor news presentation? Plenty.
We have had newspapers of all hues and shades, literally, but because they did not respect other people in the way they reported and readers and advertisers simply stopped giving them business..."
I have therefore concluded is that MECOZ are cowards. Instead of pushing for the correct type of reform, they have chosen the "low road". The non-government media in Zambia is small. If they want to have a Regulator, they already have one - their employer! If on the other hand, they genuinely want to help eliminate perceived market failures, then they should tell their employer to sell the Daily and The Times and encourage a more independent ZNBC. Let us try competition first, and if that does not work or the market becomes unmanageable, then let us look at alternative options. Is this really that difficult for these MECOZ chaps to grasp? I thought they attended proper journalistic course, rather than fake universities? Well show us!
Update (16/08/2008) :
After re-reading my rant today, and correcting a few spellings, it struck me the MECOZ chaps may come back with a weak argument based on the "infant industry" or "natural monopoly" reasoning. They could say, look Cho, selling the Daily and Times is not an option because state controlled media either helps to make the industry grow or because the small size of the Zambia media market cannot tolerate big players! Bizarre arguments I know, but I thought I should pre-empty them before they are raised elsewhere. There's no limit to the bizarre logic of MECOZ.