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Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Zambian Media As Agents of Poverty

By Chola Mukanga
One of the key developments in economics in the last decade has been the emergence of the “institutional school” led by Acemoglu[i] and others. At the heart of their analysis is that development is an outworking of the struggle for power because it is the distribution of power that determines the evolution of institutions, which in turn determines policy. Properly understood, at the heart of Zambia's poverty is that our political system does not work for the poor, it works in the interest of the elites that combine to pursue policies that enrich themselves. This view therefore sees the distribution of power in Zambia as the fundamental cause of poverty, and goes beyond basic ("proximate") explanations i.e. aid dependence, culture or corruption. The power resides in what could be called “agents of poverty". These are key constituent groups that are aligned against the interests of the poor (due to the underlying incentive structure) and unless their power is broken there can be no sustained pro-poor changes in Zambia.
In future “leading voices” short papers, we shall examine some of these key agents and what reforms are necessary to rebalance our society in favour of the poor. In this note we reflect on the media, with a special emphasis on the print media given its more visible thrust on everyday life. It is not possible to give a full account of their role in perpetuating poverty, but it is hoped a high level narrative is sufficient to foster public debate.

Always a player, never a bystander
The media is a cardinal part of society and has the ability to leverage its power to dictate and direct governance outcomes through “soft power”, and by extension affects the scale of poverty. It does this through a number of ways. 
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 compared to a government controlled press. As Kauffman[ii] has demonstrated, the best way to encourage corruption is to ensure government owns the television, heavily regulates local radio stations and has a strangle hold over the printed press.  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[iii] 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. 
The media is also able to influence public opinion directly, especially during election periods when it becomes a principle channel of information. Specifically, the media has the ability to affect people's preferences about government policies; and, actively defines the legitimacy of a sitting government (and the opposition). The media helps to “define” what is socially acceptable and is usually an urgent of cultural change. Often things that are not considered important by the majority can be transformed and made more acceptable by the media. It is for this reason that during times of military insurrection, great effort was made by protagonists to control the media. For example at the heart of the coup attempts by Luchembe and others, there was great effort to control what was then seen as the prime and immediate lever of communication – Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC). The culprits thought that if someone could be seen on television they may get their message out and win over popular support. 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". People literally begin to change their views and policy preferences.

The failed coup attempts also helpfully points to the media’s ability to "legitimise" public policy direction. As the media takes central place in our society, it increasingly acts as a key driver of the “social narrative”. The place of truth in Zambia is increasingly been eroded and what has begun to emerge is a “contest of narratives”. In an era of public relations and “official spokespersons”, it is now about who controls the media story rather than the veracity of what is being propagated. More information means people have less time to sit and digest all the data, they now look to the media to interpret the very meaning of issues reported by the media! In Zambia, this often means that the person who literally shouts loudest on an issue drives the policy agenda. Reason and evidence rarely play any part. The media is therefore not a neutral agent. To put it more starkly, if tomorrow the large majority of the Zambian media (both public and private) decided that Zambia is indeed a poor country and there needs to be urgent policy change, and they spread this message to our rural areas and kept repeating it day in and day out, the chances are that the public will come to believe the new narrative. If the media was 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 mediums that supply it (e.g. Wikileaks scandal, Egyptian and Tunisian government control of internet access).
Of course media influence is not unidirectional - it also potentially acts as a mirror of society. 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. Few individuals have the incentive to travel from Shang'ombo to Mpulungu to gather raw information. The media potentially eliminates these information costs and summarises for us what is happening. Indeed, this tends to be the main defence employed by media houses when they are put under the microscope. They often respond that their news coverage simply reflects what is happening or what people want to hear.
There’s some truth in that, but we have to remember that the degree to which the media reflects society depends on the extent to which the underlying incentives forces media houses to reflect society's preferences. Those incentives depend on who media sources 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 is king! Ordinary consumers dictate the direction of production through their purchasing power.  Unfortunately, in Zambia 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 has huge buying influence e.g. it consumes a lot of state owned newspapers. Nearly 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 for government’s benefit and bought by government). Much of the print media product is heavily controlled and we have many mediums directly owned or controlled by political entities.

A captured medium
It is well known among many Zambians that all the government owned press is controlled by the party in government. This fact indeed is not disputed even by the ruling party. Jeff Kaande openly acknowledged[iv] that, “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?".  Mr Kaande’s claim, clearly intended to put pressure on the Daily Mail and Times of Zambia, served only to highlight the current 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 the party in government has not taken place, but it may as well be because de-facto theft is clearly at play here. To all intents and purposes Mr Kaande and his colleagues clearly believe and forcefully demand that national assets like the Times of Zambia and Daily Mail are property of the MMD.   The late Hon 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..."[v]. It appears that in the language of the ruling party, the notion of a controlled media is well accepted.
It is difficult to understand why a party elected by a well meaning populace would use state machinery to enrich its aims, but part of the problem is largely due to the media itself failing to distinguish the nature of the Zambian state. Nothing illustrates this more than the perverse tendency in media reports to confuse “the party in government”, “the Executive branch” and “the nation state”. Often things done by “by the party in government”, through the Executive, are incorrectly attributed to the “the state”. We shall not even comment on the failure of the public media to recognise the legislature and judiciary as legitimate arms of government. At the heart of all this is the absence of “consumer sovereignty", which can only be genuinely present in a truly competitive atmosphere. What is revealed above is that the government not the ordinary Zambian consumer dictates significant elements of the media product.
But how can this be?  How is it that much of the public media is complicit in perpetuating poverty? One of the reasons 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 in the private domain continue to argue for some form of regulation.  Stories abound of journalists being bribed and failing to report matters properly. In this it becomes clear that corruption does not exist in a vacuum. Although many Zambians politicians are devilishly corrupt, they feed on a clique of corrupt journalists who they reward with cash, or promotions or political appointments for protecting them from scrutiny. This is especially so with those in the public media. It is on this very point that a 2008 Post Editorial[vi] noted that “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”.
Here again we meet the corrupt arm of those that control the levers of executive power because even for journalists who may try not to succumb to such bribes their options are limited in a government controlled environment. This form of corrupt behaviour is rampant in the public media. The only way the war on poverty can be won in Zambia is by cutting off the arm of government! Only then will 'rogue journalism' be dealt a strong blow. It’s only then will the glimmer of hope emerge that journalists will seek to represent the public and not their pockets. The public media is now full of state agents spying on independent thinkers within their circles who refuse to compromise professional ethics. 
In our appraisal of these challenges we must not be blind that this is only problem for the public media. As Rodrik[vii] has helpfully reminded us, institutional forms do not neatly map onto functions, and we know that for development it is “functions” that are important. Similarly, a private press does not uniquely map to a free press. It is the “free press” we want not the type of ownership. Yes, all media should be free of government hands and operate with a free rein but the aim should be a “free media” not solely a “private one”.  In Zambia we have a few media houses in television and print which are private but they have come to dominate their markets and appear captured by powerful individuals. There’s much to say for example for local radio stations which are de facto monopolies in remote areas, but for brevity let’s stick to the theme of the “printed press”.  While much of the media induced poverty stems from the public printed 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 many debates and where it is highlighted poor solutions are proposed
A recent international comment on the Zambian media reflects the limited understanding of many observers. The Economist magazine recently noted[viii]"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". Ignoring that the obvious point that the Post is not the “only” licensed independent paper, the statement is still not without difficulties. The Post is privately owned, and therefore de-jure independent from government but not de-facto independent from external forces. Indeed, in recent past there have times when the Post has appeared de-facto dependent on government players. Its not long ago when the then very pro-Mwanawasa Post, swiftly announced the winner of the 2006 election even before the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) was half way through the count. Who can also forget the Post’s remarkable silence during the Mwanawasa incapacity saga? As much as we admire the Post, we should concede that it is as politically independent as the Murdoch press. The Post is just as captured by powerful political interests as the public media on the opposite end.  The point here is not to criticise a private enterprise which faces an impossible battle for freedom, in face of a corrupt elite, but rather to simply note that "free media" can be equally elusive for the private press.  Therefore any solutions must account for this reality.
The question is what should be done about these challenges? 

Competition is the key
The problems highlighted above in both the private or public press provides a strong a priori for considering some form of goverment intervention. Government has a responsibility to support the emergence of a genuinely free media that contributes positively to socio economic progress. A possible way of doing this is through encouraging genuine competition in the media through privatisation and deregulation. This situation is particularly urgent for the printed media.
It is worth emphasizing the privatisation point because there are some misguided voices that are misleading many. Some continue to pursue state mandated regulation as the answer to the private sector problems. Others equally believe that implementing “independent charters” and “boards” will solve inherent political bias. Both of these approaches exhibit limited understanding of fundamental problems.  We arrive at this conclusion because the market must always be the first recourse. Government and industry led regulation models become 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 for the print media is certainly “no”. As we have noted the government controlled press continue to hold significant market power in certain segments of the market, which has tended to reinforce weaknesses of the privately owned media. Taking the printed press as a working example, with the Daily Mail and the Times of Zambia having lost all credibility, it has allowed the Post to become inefficient and dangerous player in the "independent” print media market. How often does one pick up the Post only to be saturated with adverts and poor analysis?  So not only is competition poor across the printed press, but actually the "independent" printed press niche itself is dominated by a single player. The key therefore is to increase this competition across the board.
There were hopes this might happen in 2009 when President Banda[ix] promised us new privatisation drive: “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 enhance competition in the media industry”.  A stance which at the time was regarded by many as progressive. Nothing has happened. Indeed a recent report[x] from the Zambia Development Agency (ZDA) provides a list of entities that currently under consideration for privatisation with no mention of public media houses. One suspects that part of the problem is that the government controlled 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[xi].
Indeed based on the latest revelations, it appears Daily Mail on life support financially. Evans Milimo (Managing Director) recently asked for a government bail out : “to get the company out of the financial quagmire, we request the shareholders, through your office sir to help us through a recapitalisation by an injection of K10 billion in the paid up share capital to enable the company buy more delivery vans, buy the computer to plate machine, replace old computers and refurbish the head office buildings….We request...write off the statutory debt, which at December 31, 2010 amounted to K40.2 billion. Most of this is historical debt and it is a combined figure owed to ZRA, NAPSA and Workers Compensation Fund Control Board. However, current obligations are being serviced monthly while a debt swap is being pursued with Workers Compensation Fund Control Board.” The plea is currently being considered by Finance Minister, after the request in January 2010 Zambia Daily Mail board chairman Chris Chirwa. It is not clear why the tax payer should continue footing the bill for a newspaper they hardly read. The only way to get Daily Mail back on a healthy financial footing is to privatise it. It remains to be seen how the Minister who refused to recapitalise ZAMTEL will deal with this request. Consistency demands that no further money is wasted on the paper especially where other can perform that function.  There’s no doubt that privatisation of the Daily Mail would be painful to the employees. But doesn't that just illustrate another way in which the private media keeps ordinary Zambians under poverty? We have a poor grandmother in Samfya paying tax to government which is used to keep a propaganda newspaper afloat that she will never read. The public printed media is literally holding Zambians like her hostage!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once spoke of German literature at the height of Nazism in the following terms[xii] : "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 description fits the Zambian media very well, especially the public ones. We are hard pressed to remember reading or hearing anything from them that has sustainably added value to our country. Even the well intentioned are shoddy and lacking in meaningful quality. The public media especially is now an unnecessary luxury that has outlived its usefulness. What is worse is that the men and women who work there are complicit in this charade. They are to all intents and purposes agents of poverty. We must have no sympathy for those that trade moral rectitude for earning a paltry wage, even against impossible odds. It is morally repulsive to seek financial improvement at the expense of the poorest members of our society. Our people do not need a Department for Propaganda (like under the Nazis), which is what much of the public media is in practice. They need clear and unadulterated coverage of what is happening across the length and breadth of our land.  That calls for objective, fair and balanced reporting, especially in this election year.
It is beyond doubt that that the public media through its injustice in reporting falsehood is subjecting our most vulnerable people to more poverty. Poverty is man’s injustice on another. 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 retrogressive 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 lies in greater competition which necessarily demands more privatisation, deregulation and supporting emerging media (e.g. local radio stations).

Chola Mukanga is the founder of the Zambian Economist which provides independent and non-partisan perspectives on Zambia's progress towards meaningful development for her people.
Copyright: Zambian Economist, 2011

[i] Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James – Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy [2009], Cambridge University Press
[ii] Zambian Economist, Corruption Wars – Corruption and The Press [October 2007]
[iii] Zambian Economist, Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2010, [March 2010]
[iv] Zambian Economist, Quiet Plunder? [May 2009]
[v] Zambian Economist, In Government’s Palm [July 2009]
[vi] The Post (Editorial) A Shameful Undertaking,
[vii] Dani Rodrik, One Economics, Many Recipes [2008], Princeton University Press
[viii] The Economist, U-turn on the long walk to freedom (Dec 2010]
[ix]Banda, Rupiah, Speech for The Official Opening Opening of the Fourth Session of the Tenth National Assembly
[x] Zambian Economist, Status of Zambian Privatisation [Jan 2011]
[xi] Zambian Economist, Government Media In Numbers [Nov 2010]
[xii] Erick Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy [2010], Thomas Nelson Publishers

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