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Monday, 3 January 2011

Agents of Poverty : The Media

One of the fundamental things that I have emphasised in previous posts is that development is an outworking of the struggle for power. Properly understood, at the heart of Zambia's poverty is that Zambia's political system does not work for them, it works in the interest of the elites that combine to pursue policies that enrich them and their supporters. This view therefore sees the distribution of power in Zambia as the fundamental cause of poverty, and therefore differs from other "proximate" explanations. The power resides in what I call "agents of poverty". These are key constituent groups that are aligned against the interests of the poor and unless their power is broken we wont see pro-poor change in Zambia.

One of these key constituents is certain sections of the media or globally known as the "Fourth Estate". I shall say a lot about this in the future on how the media and other agents are keeping Zambia in perpetual poverty, and indeed what can be done. In this post, I have opted for brevity building on recent news story  :
The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) has challenged the media to ensure transparency and accountability of all players who would participate in the forthcoming 2011 polls. ECZ Spokesperson Cris Akufuna said since the media plays a major role in influencing public opinion, it was important that media houses ensured that the crucial 2011 polls were free and fair. Mr. Akufuna said political parties, the electorate and other stakeholders always rely on the media’s objectivity and balanced coverage of political issues pre and post elections period. Mr. Akufuna stressed that Journalists as agenda setters should take keen interest by being objective, accurate and report fairly on the out-comes of the elections since the media is the mirror of society.
Mr Akufuna highlights three specific areas in which the media dictates or directs governance outcomes, and by extension affects the scale of poverty. Elected representatives after all are the ones who determine the scale and nature of poverty alleviation.

First, the media can affect the level of transparency and accountability in our society. If the press was free we would for example expect a high degree of information than a government controlled press. As Kauffman has shown us, the best way to encourage corruption  is to ensure government owns the television and  main newspapers.  The best available evidence shows that corruption is lower when the press is free. Indeed one of the weaknesses of the Public Interest Disclosure Bill is that it is predicated on a media willing to blow the whistle on corrupt public practice, but the incentives to do that are limited when such a media is publicly owned or falls under powerful private actors. 

Secondly, the media can influence public opinion directly. This is important because the ability to do that can affect two things - people's preferences about government policies and the legitimacy of government. There's a good reason why in the days of Luchembe and Solo everyone thought that to take over the country you simply needed to march into ZNBC. That of course now sounds foolish with so many media houses, further underlying why freedom is better guaranteed in a thriving media atmosphere. But the key point remains that the media holds the power to "legitimise" public policy and policy direction. People develop loyalties to certain media and what they are told they rarely filter out. As  Joseph Goebbels the Propaganda Minister for Adolf Hilter's Nazi Germany is reported to have said "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it".

Let me put it starkly,  if tomorrow the large majority of our media decided that Zambia is indeed a poor country (they have actually not made up their minds on this - just watch ZNBC at 7pm) and we need to change our policies, and they keep repeating this, the chances are that the public will follow suit. If the media were convinced that there's no justice for the poor, the public will follow suit. Information is a key ingredient in demanding change, that's why governments around the world spend huge amounts of money and other resources trying to control it - if in doubt just ask Wikileaks.

Finally, the media is the mirror of society. In other words, the media does to some extent reflect society. For many people who want to check the "pulse" of Zambia, they only need to look at what the media is reporting. No one has the time to travel from Shang'ombo to Mpulungu. The media eliminates these information costs and summarises for us what is happening. Now the degree to which the media reflects society depends on the extent to which the underlying incentives it faces forces it to reflect society's preferences. Those incentives depend on who they ultimately regard as their "sovereign". One of the most basic tenets of economic thinking is that in a perfectly competitive environment there's "consumer sovereignty". That is to say the consumer becomes king! They dictate the direction of production through their purchasing power.  In Zambia unfortunately media production is heavy influenced by the arm of government (incidentally government also has significant purchasing power - not quite a monopsony across the piece but in some segments it dominates e.g. it buys a lot of newspapers. In fact half of all Daily Mail and Times of Zambia newspapers are bought by GRZ, making that particular segment a huge internal market - papers produced by government and bought by it!) . Much of the print media product is heavily controlled and we have many mediums directly owned or controlled by political entities.

Nothing demonstrates this lack of independence than this 2009 statement by Jeff Kande :
We are not against the press, we are just saying 'write the truth about MMD, write the truth about Rupiah Banda, write the truth about Kunda, write the truth about Jeff Kaande', respect the leadership.....The most unfortunate part is that Daily Mail and Times of Zambia if they are here, you are not helping us also even though you are ours.......for the past six months we are just reading 'Rupiah Banda', 'George Kunda must resign', 'Jeff Kaande is giving money to cadres.' Hmmm there's no other news?"
A bold claim that the MMD owns the Daily Mail and Times of Zambia. Except this represents a plunder of national resources. To take national property and call it "ours", is clearly a form of theft. Is there any other way to describe it? Yes, formal transfer into MMD hands is not there, but de-facto theft is clearly at play here because to all intents and purposes Kaande and his friends clearly believe and forcefully demand that national assets like the Times of Zambia and Daily Mail are property of the MMD.

The late Tetamashimba (RIP) was a champion of this destructive behaviour, but at least he was honest. He once remarked : "As for me, I would be happy if the government controlled media also publish about me that I have stolen and not to hide...". As one commentator noted at the time, part of the problem is that the media in Zambia has the perverse tendency to confuse “state” and “government”. Often things done by the "government", nearly always the Executive, are incorrectly attributed to the “the State”.

At the heart of all this is the absence of "consumer sovereignty", which is only present in a truly competitive atmosphere. What is revealed above is that the government not the consumer dictates significant elements of the media product.

But how can this be?  How is it that the much of the media is complicit in perpetuating poverty that ravages our land? There are many reasons for this. But one of them is what a friend has called “rogue journalism”. One of the reasons why corruption is so insidious and difficult to fight in Zambia is that journalists are actually some of the most corrupt people. In fact the media knows this only too well which is why some have even pushed for some form of regulation - more on that in a minute.  Stories abound of journalists being bribed and failing to report matters properly. So we must remember that although politicians are corrupt, they feed on a clique of corrupt journalists who they reward with cash, or promotions or political appoints for protecting them from scrutiny. If you are in doubt, here is what a 2008 Post Editorial noted :
Zambian journalists seem to be torn between the pursuit of the truth and their desire of being in good terms with the powerful. The main form of corruption in our journalism today are the many guises of social climbing on the pyramids of power.
But here again we meet the corrupt arm of government because even for those who may not try to succumb to such bribes their options are limited in a state controlled environment. Indeed this form of corrupt behaviour is very rampant in the state controlled media. The only way the war on poverty could be won in Zambia is by cutting off the arm of government! Only then will 'rogue journalism' be dealt a strong blow. Its only then will the glimmer of hope emerge that journalists will seek to represent the public and not their pockets. I am told the media is now full of state agents spying on independent thinkers within the media, those who refuse to compromise their professional ethics. 

But of course we must not be blind that this is a problem only for the public media. Remember private press does not uniquely map to free press. Yes, all media should be free of government hands and operate with a free rein but the aim should be much needed competition in the "free media". In Zambia at present we have a few media houses which are private but they have come to dominate this market and appear captured by powerful individuals. While much of the media induced poverty stems from the public media, we must not forget that democratic ideals are just as vulnerable to the whims of individuals as to those who wield state mandated power. This point is unfortunately ignored in much debate and where it is highlighted poor solutions are proposed.

Lets take a recent non-Zambian comment on our media. The Economist Magazine recently noted, "Zambia’s only independent paper, the Post, is entertainingly merciless.....most of its stories are worthy, challenging conventional wisdom and powerful interests, and often exposing failings in all three of Zambia’s main political parties". This is not entirely accurate. The Post is privately owned, and de-jure independent from government but not de-facto independent from external forces. Indeed there have times when the Post has appeared de-facto dependent on government players. The Post is as politically independent as the Murdoch press. They appeared captured by other powerful political interests. We all surely remember when The Post was very pro-Mwanawasa, as evidenced by their swift announcement of the winner of the 2006 election even before the Electoral Authority was half way through the count? And who can forget their silence during the Mwanawasa incapacity saga? 

The point here is not criticise a private enterprise which is faces an impossible battle for freedom at times, but rather to simply note that "free media" can be equally elusive for the private press.  Government therefore has a responsibility to support emergence of a genuinely free and not simply run by individuals or businesses pursuing specific agendas. The best way to do this is by encouraging competition in the press through privatisation.

It is worth emphasizing this point about privatisation  because there are some who foolishly pursue of state mandated regulation as the answer. We arrive at this conclusion of course because the market must always be the first recourse. Regulation becomes necessary if, and only if, competition fails to provide sufficient incentives to drive up standards. We must therefore begin by asking whether the media 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. As we have noted government controlled press continue to hold significant market power in certain segments of the market. But it is even worse because here we see the weaknesses of the “private media” reinforced by the “public media”. Taking the printed press as working example, with the Daily Mail and the Times of Zambia having lost all credibility, 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 printed press, but actually the "independent" niche itself is dominated by a single player. The key is therefore to increase this competition.

There were hopes this might happen in 2009 when President Banda promised us :
I wish to inform this House that my Government is considering a policy shift with regard to media ownership. My Government is assessing the possibility of considering privatising some of the state owned media organisations. This decision will help in enhancing competition in the media industry
A stance which at the time I regarded as progressive. But alas nothing has happened. I suspect that part of the problem, though not a larger share, is that the government media probably oppose this move because they fear job losses. The losses are certainly inevitable when one considers the sales statistics recently revealed by the Ministry of Information. If ZAMTEL was painful for workers, selling the two papers would be nothing compare to that. But doesn't that just illustrate another way in which the media keeps us under poverty? We pay them through our taxes to promote propaganda which we don't want. They are literally holding us hostage!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once spoke of German literature at the height of Nazism in the following terms : "Do you know a work of literature written in the last, say, fifteen years that you think has any lasting value? I don't. It is partly idle chatter, partly propaganda, party self-pitying sentimentalism, but there is no insight, no ideas, no clarity, no substance and almost always the language is bad and constrained". That I think describes the Zambian media very well, especially the public one. I can't ever remember reading or hearing anything from them that has added value to our country. Even the well intended are shoddy and lacking in meaningful quality. The public media especially is now are unnecessary luxury that has outlived its usefulness.

What is sad is that the men and women who work for the public media are complicit in this charade- they are to all intents and purposes agents of poverty. I have no sympathy for those that trade moral rectitude for earning a paltry wage, even against impossible situations. We are to live upright at all costs. We should not seek financial improvement at the sake of others. Our people do not need a Department for Propaganda (like under the Nazis), which is what the public media is in practice. They need clear and unadulterated coverage of what is happening across the country. They what Mr Akufuna calls "objective" and fair balanced reporting. 

I am convinced that the public media through its injustice in reporting falsehood is subjecting our people to more poverty. There's nothing patriotic about injustice. Zambia's public media does not serve the interests of our nation and to all intents and purpose stand as forces against our poor. Unfortunately neither is some of the private media due to poor quality and lack of incentive to regenerate. The answer to these problems leads to the role of greater competition which necessarily demands more privatisation, deregulation and supporting emerging media (e.g. local radio stations). I shall write more on these elements later this year, particularly "supporting emerging media".  

This series of lengthy posts are part of a new 2011 series called  Agents of Poverty : How Zambia's Elites Keep Our People in Poverty.  I am looking at various players in society and the contribution they are making to reinforcing poverty (e.g. churches, media, etc.).  Will post at least one essay each month on them and update existing posts (updated posts are likely to focused on policy solutions).

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