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Media and elections: lessons from Zambia

BY NIGEL NYAMUTUMBU

The electoral cycle in Zambia has now firmly entered the post-elections period following the electoral commission’s declaration of Hakainde Hichilema as the duly elected president and the concession by the incumbent Edgar Lungu to pave way for a smooth transition.

Given the conditions under which these elections were conducted, which in many ways failed to meet the standards of the Sadc principles governing democratic elections, it is commendable that despite an uneven playing field — that normally disadvantages the opposition — there is a framework to respect the will of the majority of the Zambians that expressed themselves in the vote.

There is, however, a real risk that in the midst of wide celebrations of how deeply entrenched authoritarianism methods in the conduct of elections can still be defeated, the civic society can miss opportunities for advocacy in addressing fundamental structural issues that should be addressed during elections and more broadly in the governing of democratic societies.

Now that Zambia is in the post electoral period of the cycle, there is an opportunity for civic society within the country and the region to engage with the new administration on the nature of the reforms that should underpin the conduct of future elections.

Regional actors should also galvanise the momentum built around the elections in Zambia to proffer solidarity and timely interventions in countries such as Lesotho and Zimbabwe preparing for elections in the not so distant future.

In this submission, I broadly note observations with regards how the Zambian media and free expression enterprise conducted themselves during the elections.

I look at areas in which regional actors that support media freedom in the region should focus and amplify advocacy as part of strengthening the media’s role during elections and in advancing the human rights discourse.

Access to media by contesting parties and candidates

One key principle that should underpin the media’s conduct during an election is fairness and balance.

While this obligation doesn’t necessarily take away the basic tenets of news values, journalistic angling of stories and editorials, there is a greater demand on the media as a conduit of citizens’ right to access information, to as much as possible provide equal access to contesting parties and candidates a platform to reach out to the electorate.

The media is a marketplace of ideas and as a public good, there is need for fair practices.

A helicopter view of the Zambian media, during the period at which the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ) were among those invited by the Bloggers of Zambia to witness the plebiscite, wherein in observation and interaction with agencies within the space demonstrated how the focus of the media was largely on the two main parties and those that could afford to provide “incentives” for their political activities to be covered.

Most publications with the wider reach were directly or indirectly linked to the incumbent administration, without safeguards to ensure editorial independence.

This should be addressed by the new administration in Zambia and a critical point of engagement in the region.

Conduct of the state broadcaster

Linked to the point around editorial independence and entrenchment of control by the government of media and freedom of expression enterprises, is the conduct of the state broadcaster during the electoral period.

The state broadcaster’s coverage of the opposition was unbalanced and unfair, with the worst instances being near blackouts on access to the state media by the main opposition candidate.

While president-elect Hachilema has extended an “olive branch” to the state broadcaster despite how he was unfairly treated during the elections, in a welcome gesture during his victory press conference, it is prudent that his administration transforms the state broadcaster into a public service broadcaster.

The empirical need for the transformation of state broadcasters cuts across the region.

Internet shutdown

It was rather ironic that for an election conducted under the Covid-19 strict rules prohibiting physical assembly and vote mobilisation through rallies, the internet, which is the one channel of expression that could be used in the exercise of rights was periodically disrupted during the electoral cycle in Zambia.

Social media, in particular, was throttled and was only restored following an urgent litigation process.

This will certainly be something that the Sadc report should come strongly against and no country in this age should disrupt internet access at the cost of citizens’ rights to free expression.

For Zambia, as it is for most countries in the region, draconian cyber laws aimed at criminalising expression should be either repealed or revisited.

The major lesson from the arbitrary internet shutdown during the elections in Zambia is the need for a democratic framework for the governance of cyberspace for southern Africa.

Safety and security of journalists

The need to ensure a safe working environment for journalists during elections cannot be overstated.

Unfortunate reports of harassment of the media by various agents should be investigated and culprits brought to book.

Journalism is not a crime!

State actors within the region and particularly the substance of the Sadc observer mission reports should come strongly against crimes on journalists with impunity.

Closing down of space

Another lesson from the pre-electoral period of the elections in Zambia was the shutting down of one the most popular television station, Prime TV.

Such authoritarian practices of shutting down 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 push back to the abuse of the privilege to regulate by incumbents to ensure diversity and even more significantly, scope for critical media.

Media, gender and inclusivity

As discussed earlier, public discourse in the Zambian media was mainly focused on the two main male presidential contestants.

To this end much of the discourse was male-dominated with little scope to widen the narrative to include women, persons with disabilities and other special interest groups.

There is, therefore, need to strengthen the media’s capacity to mainstream gender in electoral coverage and to provide more coverage to female candidates as part of the media developmental agenda.

Laws promoting democracy (Access to Information Law)

Zambia has been debating the enactment of an access to information law for the last two decades.

To this end, there is no legal framework to support citizens’ right to access information, the demand of which increases during the elections.

As noted in the Media Institute of Southern Africa (Misa) observer mission statement, there is a strong case for the support of Zambia and other countries in the region to enact access to information legislation and other such laws supporting democracy.

Media regulation during elections

Like most countries in Southern Africa, Zambia has deeply entrenched statutory regulatory framework with the electoral commission with exerted influence on the conduct of the media and other such regulatory mechanisms, including accreditation.

This results in a dual accreditation process that posits avoidable administrative glitches with the potential of denying other media personnel certain journalistic privileges.

Beyond mere journalistic privileges in accessing polling stations and other electoral centres, there is need for a broader discourse on how self-regulation can be strengthened during the elections.

  • Nigel Nyamutumbu is a media development practitioner, currently heading the secretariat of a network of media support and professional organisations, the Media Alliance of Zimbabwe (MAZ).  He can be contacted on njnya2@gmail.com or +263 772 501 557.  
  • This article was first published by The Accent, a MAZ initiative

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