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Friday, 15 August 2008

A friday rant...on the media wars

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 Ngonga, 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.

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...."
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.

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 Ngonga, 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.

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..."
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.

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.

10 comments:

  1. This does not mean Government would be involved in the running of MECOZ but this would entirely be the media baby....

    Never ever underestimate the possibility of government involvement.

    EVER.

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  2. True...

    I just don't these journalists.

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  3. Cho,

    This does not mean Government would be involved in the running of MECOZ but this would entirely be the media baby...."

    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?"

    I think part of the problem is that Zambia does not have a civil service that is largely independent of government.

    If it did, MECOZ could simply be made up of civil servants, lawyers, media watchdogs and other civil society organisations and be free from government appointees.

    . The Daily Mail and The Times are all government owned and continue to leverage market power supported by the state machinery.

    But you can go even further than state owned versus privately owned media outlets.

    How about the limits of infrastructure and distribution, and the lack of a sizeable middle class population with the earnings and education to provide for a competitive market? Both geography and demographics are limiting the existence of competitive markets. How about the lack of an ideological tradition of conservative versus labour that would provide newspapers with a social identity, as opposed to a regional/tribal identity - they could seriously increase divisions in society rather than give an outlet for them? An example would be Rwanda/Burundi, where media outlets were used to fuel a genocide.

    What is there to stop a local businessman to use any 'independent newspaper' for his own agenda?

    So I am for competition between independent newspapers, but within limits.

    The question is what watchdog can effectively root out the hacks and partisans? I don't trust the market to provide regulation for itself, because that only leads to corporate monopolies, whether it is energy (ENRON) or the media (look at how few tycoons there are - Murdoch, Black, Turner).

    There should be a way for the profession to police itself.

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  4. The question is what watchdog can effectively root out the hacks and partisans? I don't trust the market to provide regulation for itself, because that only leads to corporate monopolies, whether it is energy (ENRON) or the media (look at how few tycoons there are - Murdoch, Black, Turner).


    Wouldn't anti-trust laws, limits on cross-media ownership and easing up cost of entry by, for instance, setting up non-profits for distribution and may be printing resolve all those issues with much less risk than a direct government involvement and a right to censor granted to other journalists ?

    I mean who watches the watchdog ? How does the press criticizes the press if the press has the right to persecute the press ?

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  5. MrK,

    ”I think part of the problem is that Zambia does not have a civil service that is largely independent of government. If it did, MECOZ could simply be made up of civil servants, lawyers, media watchdogs and other civil society organisations and be free from government appointees.”

    The point is that the case for MECOZ as a regulator is not convincing, even if MECOZ was the most independent of regulators. Let us not confuse the two issues. Whether MECOZ can be effective, and I very much doubt it can, comes after the question of whether we need it. Worrying about how to make MECOZ effective is putting the cart before the horse.

    ”So I am for competition between independent newspapers, but within limits.”
    Sorry, but I don’t follow this argument.

    ”The question is what watchdog can effectively root out the hacks and partisans?”
    No that’s not the question. The question is how do we encourage a more competitive media that would drive up standards?
    You want a regulator paid for by the public funds? Its not even left wing…I mean if you are true leftie you should care about the very poor and not burdening them with useless regulation like this, because its tax payers money that eventually get wasted on these misadventures.

    ”I don't trust the market to provide regulation for itself, because that only leads to corporate monopolies, whether it is energy (ENRON) or the media (look at how few tycoons there are - Murdoch, Black, Turner). “

    Monopolies exist because of poor competition. Government’s role is how to encourage such competition.

    Random,

    ”Wouldn't anti-trust laws, limits on cross-media ownership and easing up cost of entry by, for instance, setting up non-profits for distribution and may be printing resolve all those issues with much less risk than a direct government involvement and a right to censor granted to other journalists ?”
    Indeed.

    ”I mean who watches the watchdog ? How does the press criticizes the press if the press has the right to persecute the press ?”
    There’s a reason why it’s called the last resort…lol!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Cho,

    ”I don't trust the market to provide regulation for itself, because that only leads to corporate monopolies, whether it is energy (ENRON) or the media (look at how few tycoons there are - Murdoch, Black, Turner). “

    Monopolies exist because of poor competition. Government’s role is how to encourage such competition.

    According to neoliberal free market theory, government doesn't have a role at all. Markets will 'regulate themselves'.

    ”The question is what watchdog can effectively root out the hacks and partisans?”

    No that’s not the question. The question is how do we encourage a more competitive media that would drive up standards?

    You want a regulator paid for by the public funds? Its not even left wing…I mean if you are true leftie you should care about the very poor and not burdening them with useless regulation like this, because its tax payers money that eventually get wasted on these misadventures.


    I don't think competition in itself will drive up standards.

    What I would worry about is political interference. A regulatory body could look out and give cover for journalists themselves, so they couldn't be sued at the drop of a hat, which seems to be the present regulatory system. They seem to spend a lot of time in court - which of course helps limit the journalistic profession to those who can afford it.

    Also, media regulation in general can ensure the very diversity of opinion that we would all seek. It is deregulation in the US for instance that caused most major media outlets to be owned by a few non-media corporations and killed off both local and global newsreporting.

    But specifically about MECOZ, you could be right. Of course I would oppose state control of the media.

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  7. MrK,

    ”Monopolies exist because of poor competition. Government’s role is how to encourage such competition.”

    “According to neoliberal free market theory, government doesn't have a role at all. Markets will 'regulate themselves'.”


    I don’t really pay attention to ideological positions. I only care about good economic thinking. Good economic analysis should not ideological. It should be able to step back and allow its thinking to be challenged by any school of thought.

    If the MECOZ chaps can tell me why the Zambian media needs regulation instead of competition, I would be happy to hear them, as long as their thinking is within a coherent economic framework. By that I mean they have to explain to me what distortions they see in the media market and how they think regulation delivers a superior outcome relative to competition.


    ”I don't think competition in itself will drive up standards.”

    But you have not proved why this would not happen? What is your basis for this statement?

    ”What I would worry about is political interference.”

    I don’t follow this. What do you mean? If the market was highly competitive everyone would have access to alternative mediums, and infact political interference would be minimise relative to a monopolistic situation.
    Are you really saying that a more competitive Zambian media market would be WORSE than what happens now with state controlled media??????

    ”A regulatory body could look out and give cover for journalists themselves, so they couldn't be sued at the drop of a hat, which seems to be the present regulatory system. They seem to spend a lot of time in court - which of course helps limit the journalistic profession to those who can afford it.”

    What cover? It sounds like you are saying journalists are sued willy nilly….but what are the courts for????? It sounds to me that your concern is to do with a poor legal system than the state of the journalistic inquiry.

    I also see you are quite on the costs of the regulator. Are you not worried that in a country with 70% of our people on less than $2 a day, something that may cost $1m to probably run properly, would actually feed 1,100+ households per year?

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  8. I agree with Cho, especially what he written towards the end concerning the sale of the two govt owned papers. But what he forgot to include is that regulation of that type only happens in non-democratic societies. Journalism borders on freedom of expression and in zambia, there is already enough regulation, e.g press cards. Every person is free to express himself or herself without hinderance in a democracy. Regulation of any kind is undemocratic. That's why there is debate that journalism is infact not a profession like law or accountancy. Mecoz, especially when legislated is a danger to this human right and she never be allowed. Why people cry about the Post standards is the fact that they are, as Cho says, the only reliable player on the market, and when they don't live up to standards, people feel betrayed. Come on sell ZDM, sell TOZ and you will have somewhere to run to.

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  9. Such a great discussion deserves some revival, though of course I am immediately going to throw in a tangential point:

    Newspapers and subscriptions have gone hand in hand for centuries. After all, it costs money to publish, to research, to pay rent, utilities, and to hire reporters who know their subjects as well as the people they are interviewing. It has always been assumed that if you want today's news, then you have to pay for it. Therefore it makes sense that as the market for news has moved away from print and onto the web, so has the need for online subscription revenue become increasingly acute.

    That said, it has also always been the case that if you want yesterday's news (a.k.a. olds), then you need look no further than your neighbor's rubbish. Even older stories are generally available in public libraries. In the internet world, papers that don't arrange for their archives to be online searchable at least to the same degree that microfiche files in library periodicals sections are (i.e. laboriously and chronologically), will likely lose credibility over time as sources worth citing. This also has to do with how web search engines work, load up on all the keywords you like, if others are not linking to you, then you are less likely to be favoured by the spiders. If a paper cannot afford to host such archives, there are a ton of places hoping to host content that attracts hits. The point is to stop trying to padlock the landfill, unless you want to be in the oldspaper business.

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  10. Yakima,

    I like revivals!

    I fully agree that the archives are a great mechanism for newspaper to distinguish themselves. Interesting to see that only Times of Zambia has a good archive.

    As you say, archives drive traffic!

    I do fear the day, google plugs off!

    ReplyDelete

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