Media and Elections: Lessons from Zambia
BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU
The electoral cycle in Zambia has now firmly entered the post-electoral period following the declaration by the electoral commission of Hakainde Hichilema as duly elected president and the concession by outgoing President Edgar Lungu to pave the way for a smooth transition .
Given the conditions under which these elections were held, which in many ways failed to meet the standards of Sadc principles governing democratic elections, it is commendable that despite an uneven playing field – which normally disadvantages the opposition – there is a framework to respect the wishes of the majority of Zambians who spoke in the vote.
There is a real risk, however, that amid wide celebrations of how deeply rooted authoritarian methods of conducting elections can still be defeated, civil society may miss out on advocacy opportunities in addressing the fundamental structural issues that lie ahead. should be addressed during elections and more broadly in the governance of democratic societies.
Now that Zambia is in the post-election period of the cycle, there is an opportunity for civil society in the country and region to engage with the new administration on the nature of the reforms that should underpin the conduct of future elections.
Regional actors are also expected to galvanize the momentum created around the elections in Zambia to offer solidarity and timely interventions in countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe preparing for elections in the not-so-distant future.
In this communication, I generally note observations regarding the manner in which the Zambian media and the free expression enterprise behaved during the elections.
I examine the areas in which regional actors who support media freedom in the region should focus and amplify advocacy as part of strengthening the role of the media in elections and promoting human rights discourse.
Access to the media by contending parties and candidates
A key principle that should underlie the conduct of the media during an election is fairness and balance.
Although this obligation does not necessarily remove the basic principles of information values, journalistic orientation of stories and editorials, the media are more sought after as a vehicle for the right of citizens to access the media. information, in order to provide as much as possible equal access to competing parties and candidates a platform to reach the electorate.
The media are a marketplace for ideas and as a public good fair practices are needed.
A helicopter view of the Zambian media, during the period in which the Zimbabwe Media Alliance (MAZ) was among those invited by bloggers from Zambia to attend the plebiscite, during which the sighting and interaction with space agencies demonstrated how the focus of the media largely focused on the two main parties and on those who could afford to provide “incentives” for their political activities to be covered.
Most of the wider reach publications were directly or indirectly linked to the administration in place, without guarantees to ensure editorial independence.
This should be addressed by the new administration in Zambia and a critical point of engagement in the region.
Behavior of the public broadcaster
The behavior of the state broadcaster during the election period is linked to the point surrounding editorial independence and the establishment of government control over media companies and freedom of expression.
The state broadcaster’s coverage of the opposition was lopsided and unfair, with the worst cases almost being blackouts on access to state media by the main opposition candidate.
While President-elect Hachilema has extended an ‘olive branch’ to the state broadcaster despite how he was treated unfairly in the election, as a welcome gesture to his winning press conference, it is prudent that his administration transforms the state broadcaster into a public service. Streamer.
The empirical need for transformation of state broadcasters runs across the region.
It was rather ironic that for an election conducted under strict Covid-19 rules banning physical gatherings and the mobilization of voices through rallies, the internet, which is the only channel of expression that can be used in exercising rights, was periodically disrupted during the election period. cycling in Zambia.
Social media, in particular, was strangled and was only restored following an urgent legal process.
This will certainly be something that the SADC report should strongly oppose and no country at this time should disrupt internet access to the detriment of citizens’ rights to free speech.
For Zambia, like most countries in the region, draconian cyber laws aimed at criminalizing expression should either be repealed or reviewed.
The main lesson from the arbitrary shutdown of the internet during elections in Zambia is the need for a democratic framework for cyberspace governance for southern Africa.
Safety and security of journalists
The need to ensure a safe working environment for journalists during elections cannot be overemphasized.
The unfortunate reports of media harassment by various agents should be investigated and the culprits brought to justice.
Journalism is not a crime!
State actors in the region and in particular the substance of Sadc observation mission reports should firmly oppose crimes committed against journalists with impunity.
Another lesson from the pre-election period in Zambia was the closure of one of the most popular television stations, Main TV.
Such authoritarian practices of silencing voices critical of the government have no place in any democratic society and mechanisms should be put in place to ensure the independence of regulatory authorities.
There should be a step back from the abuse of the privilege to regulate by incumbents to ensure diversity and, more importantly, leeway for critical media.
Media, gender and inclusiveness
As previously reported, public discourse in the Zambian media focused primarily on the two main male presidential candidates.
To this end, much of the discourse was dominated by men with little scope to expand the narrative to include women, people with disabilities, and other special interest groups.
There is therefore a need to strengthen the capacity of the media to mainstream gender in election coverage and provide more coverage to female candidates as part of the media development program.
Laws promoting democracy (Access to Information Act)
Zambia has been debating the enactment of an access to information law for two decades.
To this end, there is no legal framework to support the right of citizens to access information, the demand for which increases during elections.
As stated in the Southern African Media Institute (Misa) observation mission statement, there is a strong case for supporting Zambia and other countries in the region to enact legislation on the media. ‘access to information and other laws supporting democracy.
Media regulation during elections
Like most countries in southern Africa, Zambia has deeply entrenched a statutory regulatory framework with the Election Commission which has exerted influence on the conduct of the media and other regulatory mechanisms, including accreditation.
The result is a dual accreditation process which poses avoidable administrative problems that may deprive other media staff of certain journalistic privileges.
Beyond the mere journalistic privileges of access to polling stations and other electoral centers, there is a need for a broader discourse on how self-regulation can be strengthened during elections.
- Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently heading the secretariat of a network of professional and media support organizations, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ). He can be contacted on [email protected] or +263 772 501 557.
- This article was first published by The accent, a MAZ initiative