Statement by Dr Fred M’membe, press freedom hero of the United Nations affiliated International Press Institute and president of the Socialist Party on the government’s sanctions against Prime TV
What is happening to Prime TV is very, very sad.
The cruel sanctions imposed by the government on Prime TV for refusing to give free advertising space to its coronavirus campaign are unjustified.
Prime TV is not alone in this decision. This was a collective decision of ZIBA. Gerald Shawa, the proprietor of Prime TV spoke as chairman of ZIBA to deliver a collective decision.
Moreover, why should the independent media be forced to offer the government free advertising space when the same government is spending money elsewhere and not getting free services. It’s paying for drugs, sanitisers and other materials and services required to fight the coronavirus. And what has this government done for the independent media to deserve a free service from it?
But the singling out and targeting of Prime TV for victimisation is not accidental. It is part of a consistent campaign to discredit and destroy this television station. Why? It’s because of its independence, its refusal to be compromised.
Media freedom has been deteriorating in Zambia over the past six years.
This government has overseen concerted attempts to throttle the independence of the media sector in this country.
While the threats to media freedom in this country are real and concerning in their own right, their impact on the state of democracy is what makes them truly dangerous.
Experience has shown, however, that media freedom can rebound from even lengthy stints of repression when given the opportunity. The basic desire for democratic liberties, including access to honest and fact-based journalism, can never be extinguished.
The fundamental right to seek and disseminate information through an independent media is under attack, and part of the assault has come from unexpected individuals – people we thought were better placed to understand and defend media freedom.
It’s sad that people who should be media freedom’s staunchest defenders, are making explicit attempts to silence critical media voices and strengthen outlets that serve up favourable coverage. The trend is linked to a national decline in democracy itself: the erosion of media freedom is both a symptom of and a contributor to the breakdown of other democratic institutions and principles, a fact that makes it especially alarming.
Today a large segment of our population is no longer receiving unbiased news and information. This is because the media has fallen prey to more nuanced efforts to throttle its independence.
The independent media is in all sorts of ways being put under a lot of financial pressure. And we are so often witnessing public denunciations of honest journalists. The government has also offered proactive support to friendly news media outlets through measures such as lucrative state business, favourable regulatory decisions, and preferential access to state information and news. The goal is to make the media serve those in power rather than the public.
It has become painfully apparent that a free media can never be taken for granted, even when people with some media background are in power.
This government has had great success in snuffing out critical journalism.
This breakdown of media freedom in our country is closely related to the broader decline of democracy.
Although the media is not always the first institution to be attacked when a country’s leadership takes an antidemocratic turn, repression of free media is a strong indication that other political rights and civil liberties are in danger.
These assaults on media independence are closely associated with power grabs by incumbent leaders, with attempts to crush perceived threats to their control.
A free and independent media sector that can keep the population informed and hold leaders to account is as crucial for a strong and sustainable democracy as free and fair elections. Without it, citizens cannot make informed decisions about how they are ruled, and abuse of power, which is all but inevitable in any society, cannot be exposed and corrected.
There is an obvious tension between journalists who are attempting to perform their proper democratic function and antidemocratic politicians that are determined to retain power. The innovative and courageous work of Prime TV and other independent news media outlets offers hope that even in the most desperate circumstances, those who are committed to distributing information in the public interest can find a way. But these journalists alone cannot address the needs of millions of Zambians who still have access to little more than their government’s narrative and must rely on their own instincts and observations to assess the claims of corrupt and abusive leaders.
We have an individual and collective duty to ensure
that the actions of this government do not excuse or inspire violations of press freedom. We all have an individual and collective important role to play in maintaining media freedom.
Our words matter, and when we fail to swiftly and vigorously condemn acts of repression such as these attacks of Prime TV, we send a signal to our undemocratic leaders that assaults on the media and crimes against journalists are permissible.
Take strong and immediate action against any violations of media freedom through press statements, phone calls, meetings, letters, and the withdrawal of support and votes from perpetrators.
Stand up publicly for the value of a free media.
We could easily forget this amid media mudslinging and incendiary commentary. Politicians and other leaders should reiterate the extent to which we all benefit from professional journalists who hold those in power to account.