Zambia’s Upside Down Media Ethics

On a recent visit to Lusaka from Kitwe where I am based and follow Zambia’s political events, I bought the latest edition of the New African continental magazine.

One of the articles had an interesting introduction to a column which immediately caught my eyes as I flipped through the pages.

It said: “It is hard staying in a world in which, by some accounts, honesty does not pay. Some of the people who run the world are dishonest. They cannot be trusted to keep their word on anything they say. So what is the motivation to stay honest?”

Replace the ‘world’ with ‘Zambia’ and bring in Ministry of Information Permanent Secretary Amos Malupenga somewhere in the above paragraph. You probably already know why.

Malupenga at the start of this week summoned management from UNZA Radio, a laboratory radio station owned by the country’s top learning institution, the University of Zambia—UNZA in short.

The former Managing Editor of The Post has not been amused with UNZA Radio’s programming of late, according to the government-owned Times of Zambia newspaper.

Put bluntly on behalf of Malupenga, he does not want the radio station to continue carrying interviews or programmes for members of opposition parties.

Malupenga told UNZA Radio management, led by acting Head of the Department of Mass Communication, Gerald Mwale, that the Ministry was concerned that the radio station had departed from its original mandate of being a teaching facility to a platform for advancing partisan interests.

Malupenga said the ministry would not watch UNZA Radio depart from the basis for which the licence was issued which was to serve as a teaching aid for media students.

“What is going on at UNZA Radio is against ethical requirements of good journalism. As far as we are concerned, UNZA Radio is a laboratory station for media training.

“As such, UNZA Radio’s primary interest is to the media students at the University and not the community at large,” he said.

He said if the station wanted to abandon its original plan to serve as a teaching tool for media students, management was free to apply for a community radio licence so that it could operate like any other community radio station.

Malupenga said as a university station, UNZA Radio should lead by example by adhering to high professional and ethical standards of being factual, balanced, objective and fair in programming.

He said the station should not be involved in rumour mongering, maligning and defaming others and publishing unsubstantiated statements and claims.

“If you don’t want to adjust, we shall have no choice but to revoke your licence,” he said.

He also cautioned other private and community radio stations against overstepping their mandate in informing, educating and entertaining the public.

Malupenga said his ministry would take corrective measures against any radio station that violated provisions of their licences.

He said while Government supported freedom of the press, it would not allow illegality to thrive in the media industry under the guise of freedom of information.

“Press freedom is equidistant to responsibility and professionalism on the part of the media. The media cannot have more of one and less of the other,” he said.

You would understand if management at UNZA is now scared because next time, the government may as well ban opposition political party leaders from completely stepping their feet at the institution.

There is evidence to suggest so. Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) last month visited Evelyn Hone college, a top college in Lusaka and made an attempt to appear on their radio station. In no time, he was summoned to the police and Clayson Hamasaka, the manager of Hone FM was fired on instructions from State House.

Hamasaka’s wife, Pamela, who at the time worked for a government-owned water utility company also lost her job for no apparent reason. Many suspect she paid the price for her husband crossed paths with the government.

It is hard to believe or even start thinking about how much things have changed in Zambia the last one year.

For those that may not remember or are deliberately looking the other way when it suits them like Malupenga, it is radio stations like Hone FM and UNZA radio that the incumbent republican president Michael Sata literally made his own.

He had unlimited access to them and was once famed for calling them “Under Five” radio stations.

In fact, he promised to grant such radio stations national licences if he became president of Zambia. Sata was never banned from appearing on these stations and whenever he did so, he wasted no time attacking those he was opposed to. The question is: what has now changed?

It is actually baffling when Malupenga says: “What is going on at UNZA Radio is against ethical requirements of good journalism. As far as we are concerned, UNZA Radio is a laboratory station for media training.”

Would Malupenga have said the same things if UNZA Radio played host to any politician in the ruling government?

Agreed, UNZA Radio is a laboratory station for media training.

Yet it must also be noted that part of that training obviously requires students to interview or interact with politicians so that they get hands-on experience before they are finally released into mainstream journalism.

There are bigger and illegal things that Malupenga should instead worry about. He should worry about the illegality behind Sata granting a radio license to Atupele Muluzi, son of former Malawi president Bakili Muluzi, to broadcast propaganda messages during the last days of late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika from Chipata, a town bordering that country.

Malupenga should worry about the deception by the PF when they were in the opposition that they would implement the Freedom of Information Bill within 90 days of taking power. Now that they are in power, nothing has happened.

Malupenga should also take time to reflect on his hypocrisy when he urges the media not to entertain politicians that were bent on character assassinating one another in the media in the same week that senior government officials like Kenney Sakeni, Alexander Chikwanda and GBM labeled Hakainde as the “chief apostle of tribalism”.

Malupenga should also take time to recall that when he was managing editor at The Post newspaper, he himself drew a lot of pride in having headlines like “Mulongoti is a Twit” and stories where Sata accused former President Rupiah Banda of having a big nose.

There are actually many examples. In those days of Malupenga being at The Post, whenever people complained about the paper promoting hate messages, Malupenga would always defend the institution by saying the paper never participated in name-calling but merely covered what politicians said. Is it now that Malupenga has become wise after being appointed in government? Would he have said the same things he is propagating had MMD won last year’s elections?

Instead of attempting to prescribe a dress code for journalists that cover events at State House (like he once did), instigating the dismissal of six journalists from the state-owned media and threatening to close down on-line media, Malupenga should not forget where he comes from as a journalist and what he himself practised.

The last one year in Zambia’s political arena has taught Zambians some vital lessons: it is easy to criticise when you are not in government. Get in there and before long, the same Zambians realise the devil you know is better than the angel you don’t.

But for people like Malupenga, it appears despite Zambia drifting to worse times, they would rather behave like that stubborn fly that is rather buried with the corpse.

Anyway, It is hard staying in a Zambia in which, by some accounts, honesty does not pay. Some of the people who run Zambia are dishonest. They cannot be trusted to keep their word on anything they say. So what is the motivation to stay honest?

Being consistent with the truth, honest to oneself and being principled.

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