On 31 August 2022, my friend JackZimba, wrote a very generous article in the Daily Mail. The piece was inresponse to an ongoing discussion triggered by Sydney Matamwandi, who wanted toknow why Zambian journalists fail to provide citizens with rich and timelyinformation. Are Zambian journalists lazy? That was his question.
Mr Matamwandi was wondering why Zambian journalists couldn’t write a compelling obituary of the former Zambia Army Commander, General Nobby Simbeye who died recently. Well, his observation is valid and every well-meaning journalist must take time to reflect.
As Jack observed, “criticism, especially one that is without malice, must help us reflect and, if possible, help us change course”.
It is difficult to defend a profession or individuals who have allowed themselves to be captured and destroyed by greedy politicians and other powerful forces. The journalism we see in Zambia isn’t journalism at all, it is something else. In fact, most of it is simply mere reporting of what is already in public.
Zambian journalists face a myriad of challenges, including difficult labour conditions and poor remuneration. In fact, many of us are only able to make it to live the next day. The situation is worse in community radio stations in rural parts of the country, where journalists literally receive peanuts or no pay at all.
In addition, private media companies where some of the journalists work, are owned by individuals, families, shareholders or churches. Some commercial media companies, which often produce content for broadcast or print, are run to make a profit. In many of them, journalism is a by the way thing. In some, journalists are actually encouraged to make money from sources they interview for news.
Earlier, I mentioned greedy politicians as some of the people who have contributed to the slow and painful death of journalism. Here is what I meant. Politicians and some more affluent Zambians use subtle but effective methods, such as paying journalists in exchange for favourable coverage and promises of jobs in foreign service or in government to silence critical journalism.
Here is a practical example. I happen to be in the middle of a training for journalists when two prominent politicians failed in their bid to re-contest their lost seats after a court case. One of them walked to me and said: “news coming from the Copperbelt is that what has happened is a devastating blow to us journalists”.
I didn’t know how this could be a blow to journalists when their duty is simply to report the news, regardless of who or what is happening. But the young man then explained to me how politicians have been bankrolling journalists. Some of them have even been paying rentals for journalists who lose their incomes when they part ways with their employers. That is how deep the problem is.
Politicians aren’t the only offenders. Powerful NGOs and corporations do the same - “dangle the carrot in the face of starving journalists and you will get what you want”.
Although this has contributed to the downfall of professionalism in the journalism fraternity, it is unfair to blame everything on outsiders. Other factors, such as failure to generate ideas, away from events-driven activities, lack of depth and poor writing skills are self-inflicted.
In such an environment, it is difficult for journalism to serve as a public ‘watchdog’ to monitor the political process, in order to ensure that politicians carry out voters’ wishes, and that they don’t abuse their positions.
Jack is worried that with Edem Djokotoe’s death (MHSRIP), there are very few remaining journalists who can serve as a model of journalism. I am worried too. That man from Ghana who made Zambia his home was the perfect example of how and what it means to be a journalist. He was born a journalist and died as a journalist. Some of us who had a chance to work with him, learnt a great deal from that giant of man.
The author is a journalist and co-founder of MakanDay Centre for Investigative journalism