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Free Press is a MUST Printable Version PRINTABLE VERSION
by Matongo Maumbi, Zambia Feb 19, 2005
Citizen Journalism   Opinions


Another tactic is to refer the media to the Ministry of Information, which requires all questions in writing, and then the ministry will forward the questions to the appropriate department and ministry. The response is relayed to the media through the same process. This process works against the media because news cannot wait forever.

On the other hand, the state-owned and controlled media is rewarded for its loyalty by being given better, but still selective, access to public officials and institutions. Journalists and the public have no institutionalized powers to compel officials to answer questions or provide information.

Official Secrets Acts, for example, are invoked when the media touches on matters relating to the military and the executive branch of the government. Issues related to the military and security are rightly recognized as sensitive because they affect the security of the entire nation. The harm to the nation can be immense if such information is made available to enemies or potential enemies.

However, issues of military spending and preparedness should not totally be beyond scrutiny. A balance needs to be struck between what is to remain secret and what needs to be in the public domain for the purpose of accountability of those that are empowered to carry out decisions using public funds.

The legal trial of Post Newspaper Managing Editor Fred M’membe demonstrates how the government uses the State Security Act to suppress journalists. M’membe was tried for the “offence of espionage” against the state when the newspaper published a story that portrayed Zambia’s military inferiority to Angola.

When acquitting Fred M’membe, High Court Judge Elizabeth Muyovwe ruled that she found “no evidence that the accused was spying for Angola or any other foreign power or that indeed in publishing the article it was to benefit Angola. Mere publication of the story in question does not show that it was for purposes prejudicial to the Republic nor does it establish the offence espionage.”

The continued arrest and detention of journalists prove that the government is not committed to freedom of the press. Though freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 20 of the constitution, there needs to be an exclusive article for freedom of the press.

A state that prosecutes journalists on allegations of breaching military secrets encourages the belief that there is something to hide, creating a credibility gap with the public and tensions with the journalists and the media as an institution. There can be no worse threat to national security besides the denial of access to information.

There have been efforts to have a guaranteed freedom of the press clause in the constitution. Tawana Kupe, a Lecturer in Media Studies in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies at Rhodes University, says that there is the need for a balance to be struck which will enhance the standing of public institutions and protect the interests of society. This balance necessitates the abolition of the Official Secret Acts in favour of Freedom of Information Acts.

Kupe adds that Freedom of Information Acts can have provisions that protect sensitive information from being placed in the public domain. However, such provisions should not deviate from the principle of openness. Mechanisms must be worked out so that it can be verified that particular information is sensitive, or which aspects of such information are sensitive. “We must rectify the situation where information is declared secret and so unavailable to the local media because it allegedly endangers national security, yet it remains available to media from ‘enemy’ countries,” advises Kupe. Public officials and agencies must prove that information needs to be kept out of the public domain and not the other way around.

When a proper mechanism is put in place, journalists should adhere to the system or face the legal and professional consequences of publishing information that is legally protected. Rasheed Galant wrote in So This is Democracy? that “if a journalist cannot report something, NOBODY can report the same; if a journalist is locked up for saying something, ANYBODY can be locked up for saying the same; if a journalist cannot enter somewhere, the PUBLIC cannot enter there; if a journalist cannot ask a question, NOBODY can ask that question; and if a journalist cannot speak, who will know what is there to talk about?”

It is therefore in the interests of the journalist and the media that well-defined Freedom of Information Acts become law. Access to information will enable the journalist to dig deeper while remaining on the side of the law and not appearing to be above the law. This way, journalists can practice self-regulation and institutionally they can fulfill the best ideals of journalism by producing accurate and balanced reports for the public good.

However, the enactment of the Freedom of Information Act should be watched and scrutinized at each stage so that we do not have an Act that restricts journalists from acquiring justifiable information.


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Writer Profile
Matongo Maumbi

Matongo Maumbi aka Afromatrix, is a producer at Radio Chikuni in southern rural Zambia on 91.8fm. I have been a practicing journalist since 2000 and ICTs for development in rural areas and youth related issues have been of particular interest. I have an interest in writing, and when I do it's a good piece. I believe that sharing such information with a wider group can enhance good growth on my part in Chikuni and the other parts of the world.
I am male and 24 years old, single and hope to marry the girl I have intimate emotions with.
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