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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Zambia's Corrupt Media

By Chola Mukanga

Dietrich Bonhoeffer at the height of Nazi German asked of German literature, "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".

I have been reminded of this quote as evidence has now increased that the Daily Mail and Times of Zambia have not reformed. They continue to be shamefully be one sided. When the murder occurred in Livingstone, the Daily Mail quickly run the headline on the website on 27th February - "UPND kill PF official”. It went on to scream further, "the United Party for National Development (UPND) cadres have killed a senior Patriotic Front (PF) official Harrison Chanda". We know the truth to be very different today.

We are all hard pressed to remember reading anything from the public media that has added any value to our country. Even the well intentioned are shoddy and lacking in meaningful quality. 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 should all take interest in repairing our public media because its behaviour impacts on our social and economic progress as a country.

The media is a cardinal part of society because it has the ability to leverage its power to dictate and direct governance outcomes through  its “soft power”. It's actions affects the scale of poverty by dictating the level of transparency and accountability in Zambia. If the press was free we would for example expect a high degree of information compared to a government controlled media. 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. Empirical evidence shows that corruption is lower when the press is free.

The media also influences public opinion and legitimises 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. 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".

More information means more 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 our country, this often means that the person who literally shouts loudest on an issue drives the policy agenda. Reason and evidence rarely plays 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.

Of course media influence is not unidirectional - it also potentially acts as a mirror of society. 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".

A key tenet in economics is that in a perfectly competitive environment there's consumer sovereignty. The consumer is king. In such an environment ordinary consumers dictate the direction of production through their purchasing power. Unfortunately, in Zambia media production is heavily funded and influenced by  Government. Much of the print media product is heavily controlled by government and other political entities. There’s no consumer sovereignty because Government not the ordinary Zambian consumer dictates significant elements of the media product.

But how can this be? 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. Stories abound of journalists being bribed and failing to report matters properly. Though many of our politicians are devilishly corrupt, they feed on a clique of corrupt journalists in the public media who they reward with cash, promotions or political appointments for protecting them from scrutiny. In fact the public media is now full of state agents spying on independent thinkers within their circles who refuse to compromise professional ethics. .

The question is what should be done about these challenges? 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. This can be achieved through privatisation and deregulation of the public media. This 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 believe that implementing independent charters and “boards will solve inherent political bias. Both of these approaches exhibit limited understanding of fundamental problems. 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.

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. 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. This demands more privatisation, deregulation and supporting emerging media (e.g. local radio stations).

Question : What is the future of the public media in Zambia? 

Copyright © Zambian Economist 2013


  1. The Times and the Daily Mail are 'State owned' and are always in the service of the ruling party. They had to toll the line. The central message in the recent bye elections was that the UPND was not only a tribal but violent party. Government Ministers like Mwaliteta, Masebo including Katanga the Southern Province Commissioner had to be 'on message'. They all gave 'witness statements' to the State media as to what transpired. So honestly how can political appointees at Daily Mail, ZNBC and Times go against the 'official truth' without threatening their own breadlines?

    It is not like these people didnt know the truth. It was just their campaign strategy. How convienient that the entire UPND campaign team was incarcerated for two weeks and charged with murder or issues related to the said murder and then only released three days before the elections? And as vindication of the PF's 'growing popularity' the Patriotic Front 'won' the elections.

    Honestly Zambia is becoming scary. The signs of another Zimbabwe are obvious. It is criminal to be an opposition party in PF's Zambia moreso when you come from the so called 'Bantustan tribes' then you will automatically be labelled a tribalist even before the fact!

    Why should we even have government run newspapers. Political parties can have their own papers if they want. Besides doesnt the PF government have its own mouthpiece in The Post newspaper?

    1. Honestly Zambia is becoming scary. The signs of another Zimbabwe are obvious. It is criminal to be an opposition party in PF's Zambia moreso when you come from the so called 'Bantustan tribes' then you will automatically be labelled a tribalist even before the fact!

      I think it is an interesting point that there's nothing inevitable about democracy. Countries can reverse democratic gains. Sadly many people think all it takes is having peaceful elections. It is very possible for Zambia to become authoritarian again. So it is incumbent upon everyone to guard jealously our freedom - and to push for expansion of such freedoms!

  2. Zambia has always been authoritarian. It has just become more authoritarian if not dictatorial under PF. Public institutions are increasingly been rendered redundant. We can see this from the way the PF is trying to weaken and corrupt institutions like the Judiciary, Police and Anti Corruption Commission.


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