Fred M’membe: Let The Dogs Live

M'membe-HHPost Newspaper owner Fred M’membe has voiced his concern for online media, the Zambian Watchdog, urging that the online should be let to continue following attempts to close it down.


TODAY’S EDITORIAL COMMENT: Defend the Watchdog’s right to be a watchdog

What is happening to the internet-based news media outlet – the Zambian Watchdog? A few years ago, the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority, in the worst form of media censorship, blocked Zambians from accessing the Watchdog’s website. One can only view this website from outside Zambia. The Watchdog had to resort to Facebook to service its readers based in Zambia. Now, it seems even this will not be tolerated. The Zambian authorities are trying very hard to destabilise their presence on Facebook.

We are not fans of the Watchdog. We actually have serious issues with them. Sometimes they have really taken journalism to the dogs. And we have raised issues with them for that doggish conduct. But our displeasure, or indeed the displeasure of all other Zambians, with them should not lead us to wipe them out, to annihilate them. As Nelson Mandela once aptly put it, “None of our irritations with the perceived inadequacies of the media should ever allow us to suggest even faintly that the independence of the press could be compromised or coerced. A bad, free press is preferable to a technically good, subservient one. A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press is one of the pillars of democracy.”

The Watchdog, whatever its deficiencies or inadequacies, has the right to exist on the Internet. Let those watchdogs continue to be watchdogs; let those dogs continue to watch over our society. In a word, let the dogs be dogs and continue to do their job as dogs. But the problem is not the deficiencies or inadequacies of those dogs. The problem is their independence from the Patriotic Front and its government, who want to control every news media outlet in the country. So far, they have managed to gain control of most of the internet-based news media outlets, other than the Watchdog. But this doesn’t seem to be enough for them; they want to control everything on the Internet in the same way they have gained control of almost all the newspapers in the country, with the clear exception of The Post. They have also gained almost total control of all the television and radio stations in the country, with a very tiny exception. And the pattern is the same on all platforms. Radio and television stations that are perceived not to be with them are harassed and closed. So are the newspapers. And today, this has been extended to the Internet. This reminds us of judge Danforth’s remark when presiding over the Salem witch-trials, “You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time – we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world. Now, by God’s grace, the shining sun is up, and them that fear not light will surely praise it.”

The Watchdog deserves to be defended by all of us, no matter how much we detest it or don’t like its reportage. We should not allow the wilder corners of Internet to be colonised by Patriotic Front cadres in this fashion. Such witch-hunts are not democracy in action as claimed by Edgar Lungu in his speech at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Tuesday; they are only a fashionable incarnation of this regime’s creeping contempt for freedom of expression and the press. Trying to dominate the media space through this type of troll-hounding is a waste of energy that can only confirm the trolls in their mission and reaffirm the message that there are things which cannot be said.

As we have already stated, there is no doubt there are many sick and deeply offensive things being vomited by the watchdogs onto the Internet. But so what? Better by far encourage an attitude of ignoring the vomits, the nonsense they put on the web. Let dogs’ vomit remain dogs’ vomit; we shouldn’t try to swallow it. A dog’s vomit only becomes an issue to a human being when he or she tries to swallow it. There is no point trying to stop the Watchdog from vomiting, far less to persecute it for trying to do so. The freedom of the news media outlets on the web is far too important to be sacrificed to catch irritating flies following the dogs’ vomit.

The right response to all this sometimes poisonous dog vomit is not to try to tame the dogs or banish them. It is surely to focus on ensuring we have a serious, grounded counter-weight of proper, professional journalism. Maintaining a school of journalism that can distinguish facts from feelings, that sees the truth as something that you have to strive for rather than assume, and that puts objective investigation ahead of subjective emotions or invective is more necessary in the current atmosphere of promiscuous abuse-hurling. Perhaps above all, in all forms of the future press, we are going to acquire a journalism that is open-minded enough to counter the closing down of serious debate. The old Guardian editor C.P Scott famously stated the journalistic ethos that “Comment is free but facts are sacred”. Too often in this country, we seem faced with a situation where comment and opinion are far from free, while the sacred status of facts can be sacrificed on the altar of a cause or a crusade. A free press needs both to stick to the facts and to let, as Mao Tsetung once said, a thousand ideas and opinions bloom.

It seems strange that there should be so much doom and gloom about the state of the media and its future at a time when we are presented with an historic opportunity to forge something fresh through the Internet. The traditional newspaper industry is beset by so many challenges and problems – though ironically, it exercises more influence than ever over our shriveled public and political life. Of course, nobody should expect mainstream newspapers to be so easily displaced. But it would be a start if people who want to see something different could stop obsessing about the inadequacies and deficiencies of the Watchdog and others of its kind and instead focus on generating new ideas and good journalism and creating alternatives.

But quality and good journalism are not the things that really worry the Patriotic Front. It is control that troubles them and fear of independent criticism that tortures them. Look at the quality of journalism of the news media outlets they control! Look at the quality of journalism in the newspapers that are with them! Look at the quality of journalism at the television and radio stations that they control or have compromised! Look at what is posted on the web by the internet-based news media outlets they control!

Clearly, the future of a free, open and pluralistic press in all its forms is yet to be written in Zambia. What is needed most in Zambia today is media diversity in terms of opinions, voices and viewpoints. And it is this that makes the censorship the Patriotic Front and its government are today championing unnecessary. Look at how they have deployed state regulatory agencies – Independent Broadcasting Authority, Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority and Zambia Revenue Authority – to cripple the independent media! There is a serious cleansing of the independent media so that in the end, they remain with only news media outlets that support them and harass their political opponents.

If Zambians do not stand up in total defence of freedom of expression and of the press, the consequences will be devastating over the next five years of this Patriotic Front government of Edgar that has completely destroyed and compromised the independence of all other institutions of democratic governance. With the judiciary gone, totally compromised and without independence from Edgar, it’s only the public that can stand up to this tyranny and defend freedom of expression and of the press. It is much easier to defend these rights when you have a strong and independent judiciary that is clear about its mission. But what we have in Zambia today is a highly corrupt and compromised judiciary that has become part of the executive and as such, also fears and hates the media to the same measure.

Freedom of the press is always a difficult affair as people take advantage of it in their own chosen fashion. But that freedom is something to be celebrated, not curtailed or cleaned up. It is said that the raucous, insolent and often offensive voices of the media are the sounds of liberty. By all means, let us take the press to task for all its problems and perfidies. But let’s also defend the right of a free press to exist with all its deficiencies and inadequacies, and resist all attempts by the Patriotic Front to colonise it. Let’s all defend the Watchdog’s right to be a watchdog.

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